Playing the Piano (p) Dynamic

Louder Than Pianissimo, Softer Than Mezzo

p on sheet music
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Piano, most often seen as p on sheet music, affects the dynamics (or volume) of a musical composition and is an indication to play softly—louder than pianissimo (pp), but softer than mezzo piano.

Composers often arrange pieces with decrescendos into a sustained piano (p) note, which slowly builds back to a regular volume for emphasis on a particular theme, tone, or mood of the overall piece. Piano (p) is often considered a generic instruction, which relies heavily on the context of the section it is describing to define the actual volume needed, and as a result, pianissimo is typically ascribed to a section that is meant to be extremely quiet no matter the context of the surrounding sections.

Piano is the opposite of forte (f), and in French music, one might refer to the dynamic annotation as doucement or dou and a German composer would know this volume as leise, but it's still typically denoted as p on sheet music as the language of sound is a universal one (based on Latin).

The Dynamics of Orchestras

When arranging full compositions that feature a variety of instruments, composers have to consider the volume of each instrument as it relates to the other. As some instruments are naturally louder than others, even when playing softly, special attention must be paid to which dynamic signatures should be used in each section of the piece by instrument performing.

During a quiet yet mysterious French horn solo, for instance, a tuba player might be instructed to play pianissimo (pp) instead of piano (p), which keeps the tuba's notes as quiet as possible while still managing to make a slow, almost silent backbeat to the delicate sounds of the French horn; meanwhile, an even quieter instrument like a flute might be instructed to play at normal volume since their natural output is much lower than that of the French horn.

Being able to instantly instruct players to quieten their instruments and harmonize with one another's volume is crucial to creating a great performance overall, and using the piano dynamic is a good way to create some rich moments within musical arrangements.

Crescendos, Decrescendos, and Other Dynamics

When composing a musical arrangement, hairpins are used to denote crescendos and decrescendos over or under a series of notes or measures; these instructions tell musicians to either play more loudly (crescendo) or more softly (decrescendo) throughout the progression of the notes, and oftentimes they are followed by either an instruction to play piano or forte, indicating the amount the volume should raise or lower in that section.

Sometimes, composers will also utilize extra dynamic signifiers for specific volume-related instructions; these include piano, forte, mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte, più piano and forte, pianissimo and pianississimo, and fortissimo and fortississimo. These dynamics often rely on contextual volume (più piano means "softer") and can do a great deal for quickly instructing musicians to play at a volume conducive to the mood of a piece.

By combining crescendos or decrescendos with these dynamics, musicians can easily assess the appropriate volume level to raise or lower to when playing marked measures of an arrangement. Learning to play from piano to forte and everywhere in between is an essential part of being a musician, and understanding the symbols that represent these dynamics is essential to reading sheet music.