MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

MT: Tuesdays 11:10 - 2:05 in Room 6-170
UR: Thursdays 6:05 - 9:00 in Room 6-170

Dynamics, Articulation and Tempo
In the Classical Period (ca. 1750-1820) composers become much more interested in putting very specific instructions in their sheet music, giving musicians more information about how they intend a piece to be played.

In this unit we'll review some of the most common musical terms that specify dynamics, tempo, and articulation.

Assignment #12 asks you questions about all of this. As usual I recommend you open this page and the exercise in separate tabs so you can switch back and forth.


"Dynamics" in music refers to the relative loudness of a sound. Our two main terms come from Italian, and they have standardized symbols that appear in musical notation.


In addition, we can add the suffix "-issimo" to indicate that we want something to be very loud or very soft.

Also, we can use the word "mezzo-" to indicate when we only want it "sort of loud" or "sort of soft."

Thus, just using two simple terms and two modifiers we get six common gradations of loudness and softness that frequently appear in sheet music.

fortissimovery loud
mezzo fortesomewhat loud
mezzo pianosomewhat soft
pianissimovery soft

In addition, there are occasions where we want sounds to gradually increase or decrease in volume. Once again, we'll usually use Italian terms.

A crescendo indicates that music should gradually become louder. It can be indicated in sheet music with two long lines that get wider at one end, or one can just put the abbreviated word cresc. in there.

A decrescendo is the opposite, meaning that the music should gradually get quieter. This is indicated with the opposite shape or the abbreviation decresc.. It is also known as a diminuendo (abbreviated dim.)

One of my favorite crescendos in music happens at the very beginning of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. It begins with pianissimo french horns, strings, and tympani which sound very mysterious, and then it quickly builds to the full orchestra playing fortissimo. It's a wonderfully aggressive opening for a symphony!


Articulation has to do with how you play each note.

A professional musician would probably tell you that you can play the same note a hundred different ways. You can play it long, short, smooth, rough, with vibrato or without, bright, dull, perfectly in tune or bending up or down. In general we could say that these are different ways to articulate the same basic pitch.

We will learn three very common kinds of articulation.

Notes that are played very short and disconnected from each other can be called staccato. In sheet music a staccato note is indicated with a little dot above or below the note.

Viola figure From Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor, second movement, featuring staccato notes

Notes that are very played in a long, smooth and connected manner are called legato. Legato notes are usually indicated with a curvy line called a slur, which connects a bunch of notes together.

Legato passage from Ravels's String Quartet in F Major, first movement

Slurs have implications for how you want to execute this string of notes - if you sing or play a wind instrument you probably want to perform the whole slur with a single breath, and if you play a bowed instrument you want to try to make them with a single long stroke of the bow.

The last articulation concept we'll learn is the accent. An accent is indicated with a little wedge-like line above or below the note, and it means "play this note louder than the other ones."

Very rhythmic accents from Ravels's String Quartet in F Major, second movement


You are probably already aware that "tempo" refers to the speed of music (or, more accurately, to the speed of the beat.) Composers use a fairly wide variety of terms to indicate tempo, but the most common ones are in Italian.

Allegro means fast. This is a Classical composer's favorite tempo! Usually they will try to begin and end their works with something fast.

Our official example of an allegro movement will be the beginning of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. This particular recording I'm putting here bops along at 135 beats per minute.

The most common "medium" speed is Andante. Sometimes this is referred to as "walking tempo" - it should be relaxed but not slow.

Here we'll use the second movement from Haydn's "Clock" Symphony, No. 101. This recording is at 97 beats per minute.

Finally, the most common slow tempo is probably Adagio. Mozart uses this marking on the middle movement to his Clarinet Concerto. Our recording here is going at a very peaceful and smooth 50 beats per minute.

Tempo modifiers

Composers also use a variety of additional terms to modify these basic concepts. This can imply a certain "mood" as well as a speed.

Molto allegro – very fast
Allegro con fuoco – fiery allegro
Allegro con spirito – spirited allegro
Allegretto – somewhat fast
Allegro non troppo – fast, but not too fast

Tempo instructions and movement names

Most of the pieces we look at have have multiple parts or "movements." In class we usually just focus on one movement, but in a concert (or on a CD) the performers will play through all of the movements in the composer's intended order.

In the Classic period, the various movements usually don't really have titles. Instead, we tend to refer to them by whatever instructions appear in the sheet music right at the beginning of the movement.

These tempo indications will be listed in your concert program or on a CD jacket so that listeners can follow along and know what part of the piece they are hearing.

So, for example, let's look at a typical concert listing for Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. This tells the audience that there will be four movements, first fast, then medium, sort-of-fast, and fast. Mozart added a few other terms to his score which tell us even more about what to expect.

Sometimes modern composers try to write particularly entertaining instructions for each movement, since they know that the audience will read them. Sebastian Currier's Verge [1997] is a good example. The idea of this piece is that every movement is supposed be almost too extreme, so his movements are listed like so:


I. Almost too fast
II. Almost too slow
III. Almost too mechanical
IV. Almost too dark
V. Almost too light
VI. Almost too fractured
VII. Almost too much
VIII. Almost too little
IX. Almost too calm

These titles say something to the musicians as to how they are supposed to play each segment, but they are also meant to give the audience something entertaining to think about.

In case you are curious I'll include a live performance of movements 7-9 (Almost too much, Almost too little, and Almost too calm.)

OK! Now it is time to try Assignment #12.

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