Music Symbols and Terms

Open a piano piece and you can find any number of piano symbols, words, and abbreviations. The composer included them to help you know how he envisioned the piece being playedand how it will sound the best to be performed. Consequently, it is wise to know what the musical terms mean and to be able to instantly identify them.


Dynamic markings tell how quietly or loudly to play

Pianissimo: very soft
Piano: soft

Mezzo piano: moderately soft. Mezzo means moderately in Italian. Anything with mezzo written before it means moderately.

Mezzo forte: moderately loud
Forte: loud
Fortissimo: very loud
Crescendo: sometimes written out, abbreviated to cresc., or written as a marking. Play gradually louder
crescendo and decrescendo
Diminuendo: sometimes written out or as decrescendo, or abbreviated as decresc., or written as a marking. Play gradually softer

Tempo markings tell the pace (or speed) which are to play

The tempo is usually marked at the top of the piano piece, before you begin. Sometimes songs will change tempo in middle of the song. The composer will write when to change the speed. There are not any special markings for the tempo the word is just written out.


Adagio: slowly
Andante: walking speed
Moderato: moderate tempo
Allegretto: rather fast
Allegro: fast and lively, cheerfully
Vivace: very fast
Various markings: There are numerous other markings throughout a song. These are some of the more common.
A tempo

a tempo: play the same speed as when you started the song


coda: the ending phrases of a song

D.S. al coda

D.S. al coda: stands for DalSegno al Coda. Instead of continuing to the end of the song, return to the marking, play until the
From there, immediately go to the Coda, without any pauses while moving around in the song.
Fermata: fermata, fermata, hold it longer than you should be. A silly but easy way to remember that the fermata makes a note to be held about twice as long as it usually is.
Legato: sometimes legato is written out, but often it is represented by a slur. Play the notes smoothly and connected.
Octave, or 8va: play an octave higher or lower

Poco: written before any words means a little

Ritardando: often abbreviated to rit., it means to gradually slow down
Sforzando: play the notes suddenly, very loud and forcefully

the dot means to make the note jumpy and detached

Tenuto mark: press into the note, giving it its full value. Give the note extra emphasis by simply stressing the its count value

Tremolo: play the notes back and forth as rapidly as you can

Yoke Wong recommends theEasy Beginner Piano Course