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I know this is a question that’s been asked before, but I haven’t found an answer that suits my needs.

Consider the following example [edit: new excerpt, to include all swells and to remove other staves as requested]:

Excerpt showing increasingly loud swells: n < p > n < mp > pp < ? > p < mf < f As you can see, there are several swells in this string passage (the rest of the string section uses identical dynamics). This is following an (unshown) intro in pp, hence why I want the first swell to be louder (p). Each swell is intended to sound louder than the last, with the final reaching f (but no higher, as there are louder climaxes later).

What should I write in the space of ? to indicate a dynamic between mp and mf? Is there something that means “louder than mp but not quite mf”? Until recently I used m, but many say that’s too ambiguous.

Edit: I’ve received some informative answers and comments and I appreciate them all, and I intend to implement the things I’ve learned in my scores. But I don’t think I’ve yet received an answer to the specific question of whether a middle-ground exists between mp and mf and how to notate it, in the event where this were necessary (assuming you couldn’t upshift or downshift other dynamics for whatever reason).

For instance, would having a passage play mp and then adding a cresc. hairpin (that doesn’t end with a written mf) work? (This assumes both mp and mf are used further along, and that you want gradual “steps” in volume.)

  • I suggest you crop your image so as to provide only one line rather than the full score. – aparente001 Aug 25 at 0:44
  • @aparente001 Done. – Walter Aug 25 at 1:00
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    Much better -- now we can see the forest for the trees. // The natural way a string player does slow, legato hairpins is: up bow for the crescendo and down bow for the decrescendo. The way you've written the first 6 bars will probably result in the player ignoring the bowing you've written. The rest looks fine. – aparente001 Aug 25 at 1:10
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You might not like this idea, but from the point of view of practical performance I would simply replace your "mp" markings with "p" and your "?" with "mp".

That shows the general idea of "waves" of crescendo and diminuendo within an overall crescendo. Hoping that the same dynamic marking will have exactly the same dynamic level every time it is used just isn't going to happen with human performers.

Looking at the snippet of score, it seems like there are parts that are "theme" (e.g. the fourth staff for the first 4 bars) and others that are "accompaniment," and good human performers are not going to play those at the same dynamic level, unless you add some very explicit instructions like "senza expressivo".

Historically, "mp" was probably the most recent dynamic marking to be invented. Initially, only f and p were in common use. ff and pp were then added, and very occasionally mf as "something in between f and p". Mf gradually became more common, and mp was presumably invented by analogy with mf.

Also, originally f and p didn't even mean "loud" and "soft". In Italian "forte" and "piano" mean "bright" (or "strong") and "smooth". If you really want to micro manage dynamics, don't bother with the traditional markings and invent a graphical notation instead - but don't expect many people will want to play your music if your notation is hard to understand!

  • The posted excerpt actually excludes (for space) a preceding swell, which itself goes from niente to p back down to the visible niente at the start of the excerpt. So would you suggest changing that original p to pp? My fear then would be that it might be played too quietly, since it’s meant to be, maybe not loud, but reasonably present, if that makes any sense – I don’t want it to be all that “quiet”. – Walter Aug 25 at 0:48
  • Also, this segment is part of the intro, which builds up to the “main theme” that’s played entirely in f – with later climactic swells of ff and fff – which is why I wouldn’t want to make the last visible dynamic in that intro any louder than mf. – Walter Aug 25 at 0:50
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    There is no reason not to use a wider range than pp to ff if you want. fff and ppp are common enough, and Tchaikowsky once wrote pppppp. "niente" really means "inaudible" and is normally preceded or followed by a rest, not used in the middle of a pair of hairpins. – guest Aug 25 at 1:00
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    "I don’t want it to be all that “quiet”." Don't worry about that. Playing very soft is harder than playing very loud! – guest Aug 25 at 1:01
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    To indicate silence, you can use a break (looks like a big apostrophe) or a very small rest. Probably the break (large apostrophe) is the easiest thing. If you have the space for it, you could also use words, e.g. fading to nothing but a decrescendo to ppp followed by a break would do the trick, in my opinion. – aparente001 Aug 25 at 15:11
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Symbols indicating dynamics are all relative! A f in one context might sound completely different than in another context. This means that you can use the symbols in a flexible way to convey your intent. If you have a sequence of crescendos, where each one lands at a louder level than the one before, then you could have them land at p, mp, mf or at mp, mf, f. An experienced musician will interpret f according to the context.

An alternative approach would be to set up the bowing to elicit the dynamics you want. The hairpin that contains the loudest sound needs more bow than the others. So you might want to have the first two bars be a down bow with the long slur as you have written it; then no slur for bars 3 through 6, with a marking to stay in the upper half in bars 5 and 6. It's a little "middle school" (i.e. "junior high school") to tell adults to use the upper half, but it's an option.

  • Responding to both this answer and your comment above: I’m not sure I understand your comments about bowing, though that may just be that I don’t understand bowing that well. Why wouldn’t a player just play & bow the instrument as written in the excerpt, if I want a smooth (legato) transition between the notes? – Walter Aug 25 at 2:36
  • @Walter - When you play an up bow stroke (from tip to frog) there is a natural tendency to get louder. When you play a "down bow," the sound naturally gets gradually softer as you get closer to the tip. An experience string player works out the optimal bowing pattern on either the first reading or pretty soon thereafter. You can generally tell whether the person who wrote out the part knew what he was doing. If he didn't, then you just work out your own bowing according to your musical judgment. Why don't you rent a student cello for a month and experiment? – aparente001 Aug 25 at 3:51
  • Then taking bowing into consideration, how would you suggest I write it so that the notes in the swells all have smooth transitions, except from one swell to the next (as currently indicated by the slurs)? Also, renting is not feasible for me, I’m afraid. – Walter Aug 25 at 4:09
  • Good string players can play legato even when changing bow. Write "legato." Alternatively you can have them change bow in a strange place. Try this. Get a dowel rod or fairly straight tree branch (peeled of bark), the diameter of a fat kindergarten pencil, with the length of a cello bow. Use your left index finger (palm down) to simulate the string. Practice bowing. Sing some nice cello parts while you "bow" them. When you go up bow, let your volume increase. When you go down bow, let it decrease. Let this become second nature. Then you will be able to write bowings in your parts. – aparente001 Aug 25 at 15:16
  • Do you have any questions about the suggestion I made in the second paragraph of my answer? – aparente001 Aug 25 at 15:19

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