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Crescendo: A Gradual Increase in Volume

Posted on January 12, 2024

The level of volume in a piece of music varies throughout a performance or recording depending on the desired effect on the listener. At times, a song may get quiet to make louder parts sound more grand in contrast. When gradually transitioning from a quiet section to the big, loud finale in a piece of music, we witness a crescendo.

What Are Dynamics in Music?

Before discussing the meaning and importance of crescendo in music, we need to define dynamics. Simply put, dynamics in music refers to the varying volume levels of a sound or note. Dynamics in music can be indicated by specific terms and symbols, which denote the relative loudness or softness of a note or a passage of music.

For instance, in sheet music, the marking p (for “piano”) indicates that a note or a sound is played softly. In relation to this softer sound, ones with the dynamic marking f (for “forte”) are louder. Remember that different dynamic markings depend on the context, meaning you should always interpret them in relation to other notes that precede and follow.

What Is a Crescendo?

Just like the dynamic markings introduced above (such as piano and forte), changes in dynamics are indicated with Italian words. The term crescendo is derived from the Italian word “crescere,” meaning “to grow.” It’s a musical direction used to indicate the gradually increasing volume of a particular passage in a piece of music.

Crescendo is often represented in written music by the abbreviation cresc. or by a long, narrow angle (often called a hairpin) that opens towards the right. With this kind of hairpin notation, there is more room for the performer to interpret how volume increases throughout the crescendo.

A crescendo can span over just a few notes, or it can extend over multiple measures, creating a dramatic effect. Rather than thinking of crescendo as the point to which a piece of music grows, it refers to the gradually increasing journey to that point.

A decrescendo (also known as a diminuendo), on the other hand, refers to a gradual decrease in volume as the playing gets quieter. When a musician sees the closing hairpin notation (or the abbreviation decresc. or dim.), they know to play quieter little by little, depending on how long the decrescendo is marked to last.

How Crescendo Is Used in Music

Skilled songwriters and composers can use crescendos to a great effect in their music. With a gradual rise in volume, a crescendo results in a sense of anticipation leading to the high point or grand finale of a song. Not surprisingly, the favorite part of a specific song for many is the high point that follows a crescendo. At times, it can also be the journey to the song’s climax and the anticipation it creates.

For example, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” uses a crescendo to build up to the famous four-note motif. Another excellent example from the world of classical music is Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which begins with a dramatic and powerful crescendo.

In popular music, crescendos are used in a similar way. They can be found in songs like “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, where a crescendo gradually builds in intensity throughout the song, leading up to the climactic guitar solo. Another great example is “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles.

Crescendos fit perfectly into instrumental and gradually developing rock songs but work just as well in contemporary pop music. For instance, “Someone Like You” by Adele begins quietly and builds towards the song’s emotional high point in a crescendo.

Incorporating a Crescendo into a Song

A songwriter can incorporate a crescendo into their song in various ways. Crescendos work well in building up and transitioning into the next part or section of a song, such as the song’s last chorus or outro. A crescendo during the pre-chorus makes the following chorus stand out from other parts more noticeably.

The key to effectively using a crescendo is to ensure it serves the song. Playing quietly to build up to a crescendo doesn’t always work if it brings the otherwise energetic song to a halt. Remember the main goal of a crescendo when incorporating one into a piece of music: It should enhance the emotional impact of the song by creating suspense, anticipation, or a moment of surprise at the end.

It’s also important to remember that a crescendo is a gradual increase in volume; it should not be abrupt but rather a smooth, controlled build-up. You can begin the crescendo with sparse instrumentation and add more elements along the way as the song gets gradually louder.

Learn More about Dynamics and Music Terminology

Now you know how to recognize a crescendo when you hear one in your favorite songs and compositions. Maybe you can try playing a crescendo yourself! To master your instrument, whether it’s guitar, bass, piano, ukulele, or your singing voice, download Yousician, your personal music teacher. To learn more about music terminology, make sure to check out our full Musician’s Glossary.

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