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Diminuendo: definition, meaning and musical symbol

musicians playing in diminuendo
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

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Definition

Straight to the point:

what does diminuendo mean in music?

A good definition of Diminuendo or dim. (abbreviated form) could be: an Italian word used by composers to signal the progressive diminishing of the volume of a piece of music, melody or single sound.

This process of gradually reduction of a sonic object’s power is used artistically by composers and performers and falls into the category of dynamics.

What does the word dynamics mean?

It indicates the varying levels of volume that are heard throughout a piece.

A synonym for “diminuendo” is “decrescendo”, another Italian word.

You can find both terms in classical music scores.

 

Musical symbol for diminuendo in Western notation

Western notation has a specific symbol when it comes to indicating on the score the decreasing of the volume of a melody or sound.

The symbol for diminuendo is this sort of triangle (>) positioned below the notes:

music score with a diminuendo mark placed below the notes

The more the two lines converge, the less powerful the sound becomes.

It’s a fading process, a gentle movement from loudness to whisper, sometimes to a complete silence.

This kind of sign is called hairpin and is used to stand for the word diminuendo.

When the change in volume lasts for many bars, composers tend to replace the hairpin with the word dim.

If the reduction of volume is extended for multiple pages of a score, you can find a series of dashes to signal how long the diminuendo should last.

 

Diminuendo vs Diminished: an important distinction

While “diminuendo” indicates the gradual getting softer of a melody, the word “diminished” is used to identify diminished intervals and has nothing to do with dynamics.

Both can be abbreviated with “dim.”, which means that you have to be careful not to confuse them.

 

Example of diminuendo from Western classical pieces

The symbolic meaning of diminuendo in a melody, section or even a single sound, may vary depending on the artistic personality of the composer.

However, what we can say is this:

when a stream of notes decreases its intensity, it is like observing the gradual vanishing of a natural phenomenon, as the setting sun, or the progressive calming of an emotional state.

Diminuendo is often employed in Western classical music to create a contrasting section to be presented after a powerful and highly energetic musical passage.

This excerpt from Bruckner’s 4th symphony is a perfect example of that:

 

 

Notice how the composer alternates diminuendo with crescendo, a passage where the volume of the performance gets louder and louder.

Another example of diminuendo is found in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Here the composer uses the technique of diminuendo to make his orchestra whispering, hesitating, as the small fragments of melody appear and disappear, gently, softly, in a dreaming journey that leads from sound to silence.

Focus on the diminuendo signs placed in various sections of the score as you listen to the music:

 

 

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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