Più, meno, poco & molto: How to write incremental dynamics?

I’m a self-taught amateur composer, and whilst the standard dynamics of ppp to fff go a long way, over time I’ve wanted to use some additional instructions to indicate incremental dynamics between existing ones. For instance, if a Player 1 is playing p and Player 2 is playing pp, what would I write if I want Player 3 to play at a loudness level between the other two? (This is assuming all play the same instrument – I don’t wish to compare triangles to timpanis or anything.)

Presently this is how I use qualifiers with dynamics:

Più = “more”, so that più p = “more p”, aka “slightly quieter than p” (between p and pp)

Meno = “less”, so that meno p = “less p”, aka “slightly louder than p” (between p and mp)

To be clear, I mean for these to be non-relative instructions, so that a player would know that più p (or whatever the best way to write it) specifically means to play at a loudness between p and pp and not just “more softly relative to whatever dynamic you’re playing presently”. In other words, if a musician is playing f and they see più p, I don’t want them to play “more softly” as mf, but rather to drop down to something between p and pp. (I know this isn’t the most realistic or practical example, but it illustrates the idea.)

That said, if più and meno don’t work in the way I describe above, would using poco (“a little/slightly”) and molto (“much/very”) work better for this purpose?

EDIT: Here’s a rough & quick illustration of the sort of scenario where this would apply:

So Vln 1 has a dim. hairpin down to p and Vln 3 goes down to pp. What would I write in the space of the red question mark to indicate I want Vln 2 to start playing at a dynamic between the other two at that spot?

• Hairpins go a long way. – Tim Aug 24 at 10:54
• @Tim Indeed, but my question assumes that hairpins are inapplicable in this context, such as if, say, Violin 1 has a dim. hairpin down to p, Vln 2 goes down to pp, and I want Vln 3 to go down to a dynamic between the other two. – Walter Aug 24 at 10:59
• Since each violin part will be written separately - otherwise they couldn't play what you want anyway, why not still use hairpins? – Tim Aug 24 at 14:54
• Well as I wrote, if I have comparable instruments (such as violins) going down to a specific dynamic of p and pp, and I want the third violin to play at an intermediate loudness between the other two, I dunno how to write that – unless I have it go down to p and then include an additional dim. hairpin. The problem with this is it doesn’t convey how I want the player to immediately reach that lower dynamic; the player would instead play down to p, and then a little softer, rather than instantly reach the desired dynamic. See what I mean? – Walter Aug 24 at 22:02
• Just based on the image, it seems like all three instruments should diminuendo to p. The dynamic level is just the starting point of interpreting how one should play. In an ensemble, it often makes sense to score everyone at the same dynamic and let them figure out whether they're in the foreground or background of the overall texture, or for subtleties of balance, it's something you'll need to sort out during rehearsal anyway. It's best to think of scoring one dynamic for everyone as the default, only straying from that if you have good reason. Half a dynamic step is barely noticeable. – bjb568 Aug 25 at 0:52

You are probably overthinking this.

First, dynamics are not absolute, they depend on the instrument. If a score instructs a tuba to play middle C "pp" and a flute to play the same note "mf," the flute player might as well not bother, except for the theatrical effect of the audience watching him/her doing something.

Second, the dynamic range of different instruments varies from very large to very small. The difference between "ppp" and "fff" on an oboe, for example, is virtually nothing in terms of decibels, though the timbre of the sound will change. Some instruments can not play extreme dynamics at the top and bottom of their pitch range - often (but not always) low notes can not be played fff and high note can not be played ppp.

I don't really know any way to learn all this detail except by practical experience with live performers. What you get from computer software playback by default is almost always misleading. Reading books on orchestration is like trying to learn a language by reading a dictionary. Reading scores and listening to good recordings is probably the second best way to learn - especially if you enter the music into a notation program and compare the playback you get with the live version.

For the specifics in your question:

"Più f" and "più p" are standard markings for "get a bit louder/softer," so long as you realize that the size of "a bit" depends entirely on the performer.

"Meno f" is fine for "get a bit softer" if the dynamic level is already f (or higher) but "Meno p" is a sort of double negative. If you were going to ask somebody to "walk a bit less slowly", why not just asked them to "walk a bit faster" instead?

If you still really want to write an "absolute" dynamic indication between say pp and p, you could invent your own, like "mpp," and explain it in a note at the start of the score. A dynamic scale like ppp mppp pp mpp p mp mf f mff ff mfff fff would make notational sense from a prescriptive point of view, but practical music making experience over the past few hundred years has not found much use for it!

Some people have invented a dynamic scale like ppp ppp+ pp- pp pp+ p- p p+ etc for marking up computer playback, but there is far too much detail there for most human players to deal with.

Composers have written "poco f" but to be honest it means whatever the performer thinks it means - so if you are trying to be prescriptive, avoid it. It's about as self-explanatory as "being a bit pregnant".

I have never seen "m" on its own as a dynamic, and if I did I would assume it was a typo for either mf or mp.

• 1/2 Thanks for the info. I’m aware dynamics are largely relative and that different instruments play at very different loudness levels, so I intended my post to relate to using instruments in similar dynamic ranges, such as one woodwind to another (I edited the post to hopefully make this clearer). – Walter Aug 24 at 11:07
• 2/2 I have seen (and heard from my one-time composition teacher) that some composers use + & - to indicate incremental dynamics as you mentioned; that’s exactly what I meant to ask – whether there’s a way to write that using more established Italian terms, basically (since adding + & - kinda makes them look like a math equation!). – Walter Aug 24 at 11:10
• 3/2 Forgot to ask: How would you notate a dynamic between mp and mf if you had to? – Walter Aug 24 at 11:55

It is generally better to use three dynamics p, pp and ppp or mp, p and pp rather than only using the two p and pp and then trying to put something in between p and pp.

Assume you see two scores. One score has these four dynamics: p, mf, f and ff. The other score has these four: pp, p, mf and f. Then you know that p is the softest dynamic in the first score while pp is the softest in the second one. So you would differentiate accordingly. This means that p in the first score could very well be similar to pp in the second score. So the dynamics are not just relative to what was written earlier in the score but also relative to the overall range of dynamics in that piece of music. It can also be relative to the overall dynamic level, like if a symphonic score has f in all parts it can mean that the overall dynamic is f but the conductor works with the balance, maybe asking the trombones to play softer or whatever. Some composers write a differentitated dynsmics in all parts, but you really need to know the instruments very well in order to do that; the conductor might need to work on the balance anyway. Other composers write the same dynamic in all parts and let it be up to the conductor to balance it.

@guest said in his answer that poco f means whatever the performer thinks it means. So the subject of interpretation coms up; poco f literally means "a little forte" or "to a small degree forte". The term is not that much in use but I have seen it in scores where one instrument has a melodic line with f and the other instrument playing an accompaniment has poco f kind of indicating that the overall dynamic is f but the melodic line should be emphasized. But often you might as well type just f in both parts and let it be up to the musicians or the conductor to work on making that differantiation. Well, it does depend on how easy it is to determine what should be emphasized of course. If it is not that easy you might somehow need to indicate what should be emphasized. Sometimes the melodic line is indicated with the term "espressivo" instead of a different dynamic sign. It can also be indicated with "marcato". It depends on what kind of expression the composer wants. You can also meet the term "solo".

I get the impression from your question that you seem to want to make a huge amount of possible graduations. A graduation that is not possible with the usual amount of dynamic signs. In that case you would probably need to do something like what @guest suggested. Regarding using the expressions più p, meno p, più f and meno f: They should be used in the conventional way. Don't use known expressions with new meanings. That is mush too confusing for the musician. Also be aware that music is subject to interpretation no matter what you do. But that makes live music exciting and refreshing.

• 1/2 Thanks for the detailed answer. You’re correct that I often use many graduations in my scores – if I have a score that already uses ppp, pp, p at different points, inserting an incremental dynamic between pp and p would require that pp become ppp and ppp become pppp, and so on, which feels kinda … overdone, I guess? Which is why I just wanted to find some way to qualify my p so the player knows to play quieter than one but louder than the other. – Walter Aug 25 at 0:39
• 2/2 For now, I’ve come up with the following dynamics scale (excluding the standard ones): molto pp, molto p, quasi p, quasi f, molto f and molto ff. I also plan to implement more più and meno markings in a relative manner to try and use fewer “absolute” dynamics; i.e., writing più p after a passage in f to indicate playing slightly softer, rather than writing quasi f. Think this would work better? – Walter Aug 25 at 0:39
• @Walter, why do you think 8 dynamic markings are insufficient? Do you play an instrument? I encourage you to ask yourself, if you were listening to a performer play your piece, how you would know whether or not that player achieved the minute middle between pp and p. As Lars said, the best thing you can do is work with some players you know in real life to see how they respond to your scores and play your pieces. The most important thing is that your music be reproducible by performers, if it is intended for live performance. – Heather S. Aug 25 at 0:52
• @HeatherS., I’d dearly love for my scores to be played by real players, but as it is I have to content myself with Sibelius, which is where I do all my writing & recording. Plus, I’m a bit of a perfectionist (and a control freak) when it comes to my music, so having more dynamics just appeals to me. I like using various little subtle dynamic shifts, between different instruments and also within the same instrument. It’s especially noticeable when I’m balancing entire sections. – Walter Aug 25 at 2:23
• @Walter Using quasi p one would likely think of mp and quasi f one would probably think of mf. A term like molto p is similar to pp. If you really want an extreemly graduated scale of dynamics then do what guest suggested: ppp mppp pp mpp p mp mf f mff ff mfff fff with an explanation in a note at the start of the score. But in the example with three violins I would just type p, pp and ppp even if you are using those terme at different points in the score. Don't use più p after a passage in f, better use meno f. – Lars Peter Schultz Aug 25 at 11:00

The simple solution is for Violins 1, 2 and 3 to land at p, pp, and ppp respectively (or if you prefer, mp, p, and pp). This means that Violin 3 should be the softest of the three, Violin 2 a tiny bit more, and Violin 1 should come out the most but should still be in the realm of soft.

There is a trick to indicate which voice should come out more. You can mark that passage solo. That ensures that the audience hears primarily the "solo" voice, and that everybody else backs off and allows that "solo" voice to come forward.

Note, there are other things you can do to control volume:

• Consider which instrument naturally sticks out more (e.g. oboe against a whole violin section)

• Consider which articulation will stick out more (e.g. staccato against a lyrical, legato accompaniment)

• Consider the peculiarities of the instrument -- e.g. middle C on a cello can be easily played on either the A string or the D string, and on almost all cellos, it will sound brighter on the A string and duller (but perhaps more beautiful -- depending on many factors) on the D string. Sometimes there will be a passage that ALL instrumentalists of that particular instrument will play in a certain position, unless instructed otherwise. You CAN instruct the musician to play a note or passage on a particular string or in a particular position. (There may be analogous considerations for other instruments but I know strings best so that's what I used for my example.)

• And let's not forget considerations of the bow. You can get different effects that result in different dynamic levels by playing at the frog (brash) or the tip (more muted), or by playing towards or even over the fingerboard vs. close to the bridge. You can give these indications. In short, timbre is an important element when thinking about volume.

• Related to the above, if you instruct the string player to fit eight slowish notes into one bow, that will automatically come out quieter than if the slurring indicates two of those notes per bow.

• Shifting existing dynamics up or down on the scale seems to be what most of the replies I’ve gotten say. I work with music software rather than real players (what I wouldn’t give to afford that, but alas), so it takes some rejiggering in my scores and how Sibelius interprets them, but I think I can work something out so that it both looks correct and sounds the way I want. – Walter Aug 25 at 2:12