Quickly place a sudden dynamic change


This article is one part opinion and three parts technical advice. You have been warned!

Quickly: Take a look at this passage. At what point should the player begin playing fortissimo?

What about here?

OK, what about now?

Only the last example is clear, right? That’s because the dynamic marking of ff is the most important piece of information. The sub. part is secondary, confirming to the player the there is no crescendo intended in the intervening notes.

Yet so often I see this error made (and yes, I consider it an error — I told you this was the opinion part!) in everything from novice to published scores. Indeed, all three of the above examples, which were created in Sibelius, had attached the expression to the fourth beat of the first bar, which is where the composer intended the dynamic change to occur:

Elaine Gould, writing in Behind Bars, says: “Place a dynamic exactly under the first note to which it refers, and fit in sub. around the dynamic: usually to the right, so that the placing of the new dynamic is not ambiguous.” She does allow one exception: “When a rest precedes the dynamic, sub. may also precede the dynamic,” but I would discourage this and always be consistent.

Example from Elaine Gould’s book Behind Bars

If placing sub. would cause the text to exceed the right margin, I would rather place it below the dynamic instead of placing it before.

Now that you know how I feel about this “sub”ject, here’s how to make it happen in Sibelius, Dorico, and Finale.


In Sibelius, place a dynamic in the usual way, by typing Cmd-E (Mac) or Ctrl-E (Windows), keeping the Cmd or Ctrl key held, and typing your dynamic such as ff (you are holding the Cmd or Ctrl key to create a proper dynamic and not a paltry one in a text font… right?)

Then, with the cursor still flashing, release the Cmd or Ctrl key, type a space, and then sub. to get the desired result.

If you have an existing dynamic, and select it, and then attempt to type sub. ,  you may get something like this:

This is because Sibelius is not quite smart enough to know that you wish to enter normal Expression text. To tell it to do so, with the display showing ff (or whatever your dynamic is) and the cursor flashing, type the shortcut Control-Option-Command-Space (Mac) or Ctrl+Alt-Space (Windows) to reset the text style’s font to its default, and then type sub. ,   and all will look normal. (See this post for more info.)


In Dorico, this is all made quite easy. Simply type Shift-D to summon the Dynamics popover, and type ff sub to create, e.g., ff sub.

To edit an existing dynamic, type Return or Enter and add the modifier in the popover.

You can also select subito from the Combined Dynamics section of the Dynamics panel.

And if you wish to change its appearance to make it sub-optimal, you can do so in Properties:

By the way, Notation Express XL handles all of this nicely for you, in Sibelius or Dorico (shameless plug):


In a Finale default document, the Dynamics category comes with pre-made subito p and sub. p expressions! How helpful! Except, if you’ve read the beginning of this post, you’ll see why they’re all wrong! Don’t use them.

Don’t use these Finale defaults!

Instead, modify the expression or create a new one, in Expression Designer > Main:

And adjust the positioning settings in Expression Designer > Positioning (you may have to experiment a bit with the horizontal offset, depending upon your dynamic; the following values are in spaces):

This will yield the following result:

Quickly, now: Apply a sudden dynamic change — subito!


  1. Matthew Carey

    This is interesting Philip. I see the logic, although I have never seen a ff sub. marking before today. Always the other way around.

    It makes me wonder how often the subito indication is necessary. Perhaps it’s a mostly superfluous expression?

    A thought provoking post, nevertheless. Thank you!

  2. Michael Lawson

    I also have never seen this marking this way before. However, it does make sense not only for Sibelius playback but also for clarity for live players reading their parts. Overall, an improvement for electronically generated playback, and a useful “innovation” (if that is what it is) for reading the composer’s intentions accurately, especially first time at sight.

    Thanks, Philip (and Matthew.)

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Matthew and Michael. Yes, it is meant to be thought-provoking, and maybe just provoking, haha. Matthew, I think the sub. indication is necessary, or at least advisable, if there would be any question given the context of the music if there should be a crescendo or diminuendo into the next dynamic.

  3. Bryan Higgins

    What I do in Finale after creating a brand new “ff sub.” is to apply it to a note with the metatool, and also apply a plain “ff”. I then move the “ff sub.” horizontally so that the two ff’s are perfectly lined up. Finally, I look at the ff sub.’s “assignment” (in Finale lingo), and apply those manual offsets to the expression’s definition. Now I can delete the plain ff and clear the manual positioning of the ff sub. and it will be perfectly aligned. The expression is now all set to be click-assigned to future notes with no manual tweaking.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Great Finale tip. Agreed, it is always best to get the settings just as you like them to avoid manual tweaking as much as possible. Thanks, Bryan!

  4. Kevin Weed

    Very timely, considering this discussion was just on the Facebook page for engraving. I agree with some of the others, I have never seen the indication anything other than “sub. p”
    But clearly putting the dynamic first could be a big help in clarity. Thanks for the post.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Thanks, Kevin! It can be considered “sub”jective (haha) but sometimes we do find a better way of doing things from how they’ve been done before.

  5. Andrew DuFresne

    Not sure if I missed something, but in Sibelius I open the available Expression texts by hitting a hot key (I have a single one for that, because I use it so often), then right clicking the mouse. The available texts appear on screen. The default texts include subito, but the abbreviation sub. can easily be added to the available texts. The space must still be manually typed in. Or maybe I’m the only one still using a mouse? :)

    However I do not use sub. because I assume the previous dynamic applies up to that point anyway, unless a cresc. or dim. (or hairpin) is notated. In other words, the use of sub. in this context is, IMHO, superfluous.

    1. Philip Rothman

      Hi Andrew, you didn’t miss anything! You can certainly mouse it, but since you have to access the keyboard anyway, I just keep all hands there.

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