Dynamics: The Heart of Sound

Most people are familiar with the basic elements of music, that of pitch, rhythm, and tone quality. As a musician matures, they must learn other important factors. The most important of these is dynamics. For the sake of the layman, dynamics in music are the variations in loud and soft.

Student musicians sometimes fail to recognize the importance of these qualities. This may be a result of listening to a lot of popular music on radio. In addition to the fact that many pop performers use very little difference in dynamics, it is reinforced by the use of equipment in radio stations to level the dynamic contrast to make it easier to match various recordings to a constant volume level. This can be demonstrated by comparing a popular recording to a “classical” recording with a high degree of dynamic variation, such as Holst’s The Planets Suite.

Dynamics really come in two ways. The first, more well-known way, is the overall level of a passage of music. These may be marked f (forte or loud), p (piano or soft), modified slightly with an m (mezzo or moderate) in front, or compounded by multiple indications like ff (fortissimo). Changes are made by indicating a new level for a sudden change, or with the description crescendo or decrescendo to indicate a gradual change.

Usually when people talk about dynamics, it’s this type that they mean. Unlike many other things in the notation of music, the levels are entirely relative. Forte is not assigned a specific decibel level, and varies depending on the style of music, the type of ensemble, the importance of the passage, and ultimately the artistic intent of the composer or conductor or performer. The issue is further complicated by large variations in the intent of the composer or arranger. A Beethoven ff is probably going to be very similar to a Tchaikovsky ffff. A Stravinsky ppppp is not dissimilar to a Bach pp. An experienced performer will look at the range of dynamics in a given piece and adjust the scale in their head based on the range indicated. Additionally, some composers use dynamics as an indication of the overall loudness level of the ensemble rather than for each individual player; therefore an unaccompanied flute solo in an orchestral work marked p will actually need to be louder than they would play a passage as part of the full orchestra marked the same way. Knowing what the composer wants generally requires studying the whole score, and since this is the job of the conductor or director their desires are paramount for the performer. On the other hand, some composers (particularly later ones) actually do want their markings interpreted on an individual basis, since they are looking for variations in the tone quality. The tone quality of a p string section with a f trumpet section is very different from the other way around.

The other types of dynamics are more frequently referred to as accents. These are usually indicated with an accent mark (< or ^) over or under the note, or in stronger cases with sfz (sforzando or strong accent). These are assigned to individual notes. Perhaps the best way to think of these is in the same way we use accents when speaking. When you say a sentence, you will naturally accent certain words and syllables to stress important words, or sometimes to make the pronunciation of a longer word correct. Musical accents are very similar. For singers, these are usually fairly obvious since composers write those passages so that the accents come at the same places they would if the passage were being spoken. (Not always, though, so be careful.)

It’s been said that a note that is the right pitch and right rhythm, but the wrong dynamic, is still a wrong note. This may be an extreme way of putting it, but nevertheless dynamics are very, very important. A better way of thinking about it is to regard dynamics as the means of raising a performance from being a meaningless conglomeration of sounds to an expressive work of art. Dynamics do as much as, if not more, to add emotional depth to a piece of music than nearly any other aspect. A musician needs to always work at extending the dynamic range they are able to play well. Many school directors of bands and orchestras tend to always push their players to play softer. Their hearts are in the right place, since the tendency of student musicians is to play loud. However, I suspect that they are missing the boat to some extent. A better approach may be to emphasize with their students the need to broaden their dynamic range; to make their students understand that it’s the amount of variation in loud and soft that is important. If a loud-playing student understands that he will sound louder at the appropriate times if he mixes in some truly softer playing, it may make them work on developing that broader range, and make them better musicians. It wouldn’t hurt to remind them that this is something that even professionals have to work at. An important part of any musician’s practice is to extend that variety and produce a good quality sound at both extremes.