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Dynamics and Articulation

The ADSR Sound Envelope

An ADSR Envelope is a way of visualizing how the volume (or "amplitude") of a sound changes over time:

• How a sound begins until it reaches full volume is referred to as its "Attack" (i.e.: does it increase sharply or does it take some time to reach its peak?).

• How fast a sound decreases after reaching its full volume is referred to as its "Decay".

• How loud a sound is while it is being held is referred to as its "Sustain".

• How a sound begins to fade out into silence is referred to as its "Release".

This entire curve is called an "Envelope", and the words Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release are where we get the acronym "ADSR".

Different instruments have different ADSR Envelopes. This is part of what gives them their unique sound (or "Timbre"). Likewise, we can sometimes change the ADSR Envelope by how we choose to play that instrument.

This concept is not imperative to know in order to play or write music, but it can be helpful to be aware of as it makes some things easier to understand.

Articulation Marks

On sheet music, Articulation Marks tell us how Notes should be played. We will talk about two types, "Legato" and "Stacatto".

A Legato (or Slur) is a line that connects multiple Notes together. It looks something like this:

This means that all of the Notes should be played smoothly, one after another with NO space in-between them. Please do not get this symbol confused with a Tie. They can look similar sometimes!

A Stacatto is signified by a little dot above or below a Note. It looks something like this:

This means that all of the Notes with the Stacatto should be played with some space between them. It can be thought of as the opposite of a Legato. Each Note is clearly separated by a brief silence. Please do not get these confused with Dotted Notes (i.e.: when a dot changes the duration of a Note). Those come after the Note, not above it or below it!

[If we were to think of this in the context of an ADSR Envelope, then the Legato would indicate that the Release between one Note and the next is extremely short to non-existent. Again, they connect together smoothly with no silence occuring between them. The Stacatto on the other hand would have a distinct Release.]


Dynamics indicate volume. We use two different Italian words to show this within sheet music:

• "Piano" (meaning "soft" and represented by a p)

• "Forte" (meaning "loud" and represented by an f)

We can add more letters to make it either louder or softer:

Symbol Name & Meaning Voice Equivalent
Forte-Fortissimo ("Extremely Loud") Yelling
Fortissimo ("Very Loud") Speaking Loudly
Forte ("Loud") Slightly Louder Than Normal Speaking
Mezzo Forte ("Moderately Loud") Speaking Voice
Mezzo Piano ("Moderately Soft") Speaking Voice
Piano ("Soft") Slightly Softer Than Normal Speaking
Pianissimo ("Very Soft") Speaking Softly
Piano-Pianissimo ("Extremely Soft") Whispering

These hold true until another appears. We can change volumes throughout a section as well...

Crescendo (abbreviated as "Cresc.") means to increase in volume. It is represented by this symbol:

Decrescendo (abbreviated as "Decresc.") means to decrease or diminish in volume. This is also sometimes known as a Diminuendo (abbreviated as "Dim."). It is represented by this symbol:

These two symbols are called Hairpins for their similarity in shape to actual hairpins:

We can indicate changes in volume on individual Notes too! This is done with the Accent Mark or the Marcato, which look something like this:

There are some subtleties in what these two symbols mean and how they are used, but it depends on the context. You will probably be safe if you just make the Notes that they mark louder than the others around them.

Another way of doing this is by marking a Note with the letters sfz, sf, or fz. These represent the Italian words "Sforzando", "Sforzato", or "Forzando", which mean "forced". Again, if these letters show up near a Note, make it louder than the ones around it!

A Quick Note About Notes

Just so that it is clear, we would like to point out a few things about Notes. A Note generally has three parts, a Head, a Stem, and a Tail:

Whether the Stem is to the left or right of the Note Head is determined by where the Note is on a Staff. If it is anywhere above the center line, then it points downward like a letter "p". If it is anywhere below the centerline, then it points upward like a letter "d". If it falls on the center line, then it is your choice whether it points up or down.

Here is a mnemonic to help you remember this: "pd" is an acronym for "police department", and they will come arrest you if you don't place the Stem correctly. ☺

Whenever necessary, we can modify the Note with extra symbols:

• To the left of the Note Head are Accidentals. They apply to every Note of the same Pitch within the same Measure, unless notated otherwise.

• To the right of the Note Head are dots for indicating Rhythm. These only apply to the Note that they are attached to.

• To the top or bottom of the Note Head are Articulation and Accent Marks. Again, these only apply to the Note that they are attached to.

In summary: