Dynamics and accentuation

So far, we’ve built up the ability to specify pretty much whatever we want to about the pitch and timing of sounds (see Non-metrical onset timing with specified pitch). But we haven’t yet considered how to specify one of the most basic aspects of a sound: how loud or soft it is. In music, this is called “dynamics,” and obviously it’s often important enough to be worth specifying.

In a lot of music, a passage that is first played loud might then be repeated soft, or vice versa. For that reason, it’s handy to specify dynamics with a separate marking rather than, say, making all the symbols larger or smaller according to volume. That way, when a passage is repeated at a different dynamic level, only the dynamic marking need be changed.

Staff notation does this using alphabetical markings like p and f, which stand for the Italian words piano (soft) and forte (loud) respectively. Global Notation adopts the same principle of dynamic markings separate from the symbols for sounds, but uses a type of marking that might be more intuitive for modern users.

The dynamic markings in Global Notation are based on the “sound level” displays found on electronic audio equipment. A tall, narrow rectangle is divided into a “stack” of smaller rectangles, and the more of these rectangles are filled in (starting from the bottom one), the louder the sound. 

One rectangle filled indicates the softest sound used in that piece (or perhaps in the repertoire to which it belongs); all rectangles filled, the loudest. Theoretically, no rectangles filled would indicate silence, but in practice there would be no occasion to use such a marking, since if there is no sound there will be no symbols for the dynamic marking to apply to.

Dynamics displayed clearly in a diagram showing the softest and loudest changes using a series of rectangles.

In this example, five possible dynamic levels are provided, but any number could be used. Alternatively, the horizontal lines dividing the tall rectangle could be omitted, and the volume level simply indicated by the height of the black portion at the bottom.

A famous example of dynamic contrast occurs in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, nicknamed “The Surprise” from the sudden loud sound that interrupts the quiet opening melody of the second movement.

Haydn's Symphony number 94 with dynamics notated to showcase the change in volume.

This example also introduces a refinement of our earlier method of representing repetition; see Beats. Here the opening melody is first played soft (piano) then repeated even softer (pianissimo), with a different final bar. The ordinal numbers “1st” and “2nd” refer to the first and second renditions of the melody, while a forward arrow under “2nd” indicates where, on the second time through, we skip to after the repeat bracket.

In Global Notation (as in staff notation), a dynamic marking applies to all the ensuing music until the next dynamic marking. Thus, if a passage is generally soft or moderate in volume but includes occasional loud sounds, we may have to write a lot of dynamic markings: one for each loud sound and one after each loud sound to return to the softer level. (This is similar to the issue we encountered with changes of beat division, which sometimes apply “henceforth” and sometimes to only one beat and/or layer.) To reduce the number of markings while better conveying the overall dynamic level of the passage, an alternative is to use a different kind of marking for the loud sounds: a marking that applies to one sound only and doesn’t change the overall dynamic level. This kind of marking is called an “accent.”

In Global Notation, accents are written the same way as dynamic markings, only smaller. Using accents would be an efficient way to notate, for instance, the beginning of the “Augurs of Spring” section of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, where a repeated chord on the strings is intermittently played louder and doubled by horns. As we are only discussing rhythm and accentuation at the moment, we’ll leave pitch unspecified in this example.

An example in which accents are notated within global notation as a smaller version of the dynamics marks.

Differences of dynamics are not always as distinct as this: sometimes music transitions gradually from soft to loud or vice versa. This can be represented by using dynamic markings in which the top of the black part is sloped rather than horizontal.

An example in which the dynamics of music can be gradual instead of abrupt.

The level at the left-hand edge of the black part represents the dynamic level from which the crescendo or diminuendo begins. If desired, a second such marking can be placed at the end of the crescendo or diminuendo to show the level at which it ends. For instance, our earlier example from Korean SamulNori drumming (see Pulseless onset timing), which dies away from a loud beginning more or less to silence, would appear like this.

An example in which the dynamic marker is used. In this example, the change is gradual and so the dynamics rectangles lose their fill at a diagonal line.
SamulNori-Woodo-kut-short (1).mp3

Conversely, music that gets gradually louder can be represented with dynamic markings that slope the other way. A rather extreme example occurs at the beginning of the film version of Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story. In a long crescendo like this, it can be helpful to include intermediate dynamic markings to remind the reader that the crescendo is still going on.

An example in which dynamic markers are used to showcase a long crescendo.

If desired, a more rapid crescendo or diminuendo can be specified by a dynamic marking with a steeper slope.

Examples of steeper slopes in the dynamic marking to showcase a more rapid crescendo.

To specify an immediate change from one dynamic level to another, as in the classical dynamic marking fp (fortepiano), two dynamic markings can touch each other.

An example of immediate changes in dynamic levels.

We also now have a way of representing the pulsation of volume in our earlier example of didgeridu playing (see Absolute pitch) - effectively a series of small accents.

Pulsation of volume displayed in global notation using accents.
Maralung-Jabiru-didj (2).mp3

Dynamic markings and accents that apply only to one layer are placed under that layer (as in our examples so far). When a system contains more than one layer, any dynamic markings and accents that apply to all layers are placed at the top of the system (thus reducing the total number of markings and amount of space needed). If these markings are contradicted by any markings placed below an individual layer in that system, the latter take precedence as regards that layer. This is similar to the way accents take precedence over general dynamic markings as regards the individual sounds to which the accents apply.

For instance, our earlier example of West African Kpegisu drumming (see Specifying other information where duration is unspecified) is played at a generally loud dynamic level, but the “press” strokes on the kidi drum are much softer. This could be specified by indicating a loud dynamic level for the whole system, but marking the dynamics of the kidi layer separately.

A diagram and notation of music in which optional strokes and differentiations between drumbeats using the stronger and weaker hands are displayed.

If greater precision is required in notating music from a recording, sound analysis software can be used to produce either a waveform graph or a line graph of time against volume - or, as the software programs call it, “intensity.” This graph can then be incorporated into the notation. But note that it will only measure the overall intensity at each moment, not the dynamics and accents in individual layers; so, as usual, sound analysis software works best with music where only one sound happens at a time. Here it is illustrated with our didjeridu example again.

A more precise method of displaying the changes in intensity of music using a waveform graph produced by sound analysis software.
Maralung-Jabiru-didj (3).mp3

Incidentally, this graph suggests that, if the beats and pulses coincide with peaks of volume, they may not be as evenly spaced as what we seem to hear. Technology is often good at revealing such differences between theory and reality. In Global Notation, unevenly spaced beats can be specified simply by adjusting the position of the beat lines, as here.

The ability to specify dynamics completes our overview of the most basic aspects of music that we will usually want to notate. Naturally, some forms of music and some uses of notation will create additional demands, which you may find covered in the subsequent and more advanced sections of the website. First, though, it’s worth considering a practical matter. The examples on this website have obviously been drawn with graphics software: what if you want to write Global Notation by hand?


Kpegisu percussion score based on staff notation in:

Locke, David. 1992. Kpegisu: A War Drum of the Ewe. Featuring Godwin Agbeli. Temple, Arizona: White Cliffs Media Company. At p. 114.

Sources of audio

Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 94 in G Major (“Surprise”), second movement, performed by Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Antal Doráti, Decca (UMO) CD ASIN: B00BCCE3YO, track 2.

Igor Stravinsky, “The Augurs of Spring” from The Rite of Spring, performed by Orchestre de Paris conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Erato CD 75360, track 1.

“Woodo-kut” from Samul-Nori: Drums and Voices of Korea (Seoul: Oasis Record Co., ORC-1041, track 2.

Leonard Bernstein, “Prologue” from West Side Story, original film soundtrack remastered, Old Style CD ASIN: B006NA5YUM (2011), track 1.

Didjeridu played by Peter Manaberu on “Jabiru” from Wangga Songs by Alana Maralung, Smithsonian Folkways CD 40430 (1988), track 5.