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What Is a Crescendo in Music?
The definition of crescendo is a gradual increase in the volume of music. It is an Italian word, derived from the word crescere, which means "to grow.” (Italian musical terms are standard in the world of classical music.) The concept of crescendoing, as well as its specific dynamic markings, goes well beyond classical music. Crescendos are ubiquitous in the musical notation of many genres, and the word is well known among professional musicians from New York jazz musicians to Nashville session players.
How to Notate Crescendos in Music
Crescendos can appear in sheet music notation in two forms—one precise, the other leaving room for a player's or conductor's interpretation.
Composers indicate the looser form of crescendo notation with the actual word crescendo (abbreviated cresc. on musical scores). The word appears at the point where the music begins to increase in volume. Ideally, the musical score will also indicate the climactic point of the crescendo passage by showing the dynamic marking the crescendo is building up to, such as forte (f) or mezzo-forte (mf). However, be aware that not all musical passages contain such dynamic markings, which leaves the crescendo marking more open to interpretation.
The more precise form of crescendo notation involves symbols that look like hairpins, inequality symbols, or alligator jaws. In most cases, "hairpin" is the standard term musicians use. Hairpin crescendo symbols show the crescendo’s exact length and the prescribed volume at the beginning and end of the crescendo. The symbol itself begins as two intersecting lines on its left end, and the lines open outward to the right. The symbol’s mirror image, the decrescendo or diminuendo, indicates a gradual decrease in volume. The image shows a crescendo symbol on the left and a decrescendo symbol on the right.
In many cases, these hairpin symbols will be bracketed by dynamic markings. From softest to loudest, these dynamics are:
- ppp: abbreviation of pianississimo, meaning "very, very soft."
- pp: abbreviation of pianissimo, meaning "very soft."
- p: abbreviation of piano, meaning "soft."
- mp: abbreviation of mezzo-piano, meaning "somewhat soft."
- mf: abbreviation of mezzo-forte, meaning "somewhat loud."
- f: abbreviation of forte, meaning "loud."
- ff: abbreviation of fortissimo, meaning "very loud."
- fff: abbreviation of fortississimo, meaning "very, very loud."
For a crescendo, the quieter dynamic marking will always appear to the left of the hairpin symbol, and the louder dynamic marking will appear to its right. In a decrescendo or diminuendo, where the music gets softer, the opposite is true.
How to Play Crescendos
The key to properly playing a crescendo is to gradually increase volume, rather than letting a dynamic shift happen all at once. Composers sometimes include the Italian term poco a poco ("little by little") on scores to hammer home this point. If a composer or arranger wants a sudden increase in volume, they have dynamic markings to indicate that—notably sforzando, sforzato, forzando, or forzato (sfz, sf, or fz). When you see the word crescendo or hairpins on your musical score, take care to extend the dynamic change over the full length of the musical passage. This requires control of your instrument's dynamic range, so set aside practice time to focus on such control.
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