Dynamics: The Heart of Sound Jan05

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...

The Evolution of an Instrument: The French Horn Aug11

The Evolution of an Instrument: The French Horn...

It’s been suggested that one of the things we could look at in Musebreak’s music articles is the evolution of instruments. Good idea. So let’s start with the one I know best: the horn. Most people (in America anyway) know this instrument as the French horn. However, the instrument is primarily German in origin. Therefore its official name is simply “horn”. The instrument traces its origin all the way back to the “shofar” horns of the Middle East, horns made of actual animal horns. The early metal horns were much simpler than what they would become later; little more than a length of metal tubing with a small flared bell on the end. The design quickly gained a large loop to make it easy to carry on horseback. This was important due to their use as a means of calling the dogs during hunting. These instruments had no valves, and a limited number of pitches available. Like bugles, these horns were limited to what is called the “harmonic series”, a set of notes that can be made by adjusting the speed of the air and the tightness of the lips. (The word for lip tightness is “embouchure”.) When composers started using these instruments in their works in the late Baroque era (around the early 18th century), it was largely to invoke the feeling of outdoor activities like hunting. Soon it was used as more of a fanfare instrument. Since the musical works were written in various keys, you couldn’t just stick any old horn in your orchestra; it had to be pitched in such a way that its harmonic series would fit in with the key of the piece. To that end, horns were made to have sections that could be removed and replaced...