Introduction to Dynamics in Music

In music, we define dynamics as the relative loudness or softness with which a given passage of music is performed. Relative is an important word here. Musical dynamics cannot be designated in decibels or any other scientific measurement of volume or intensity simply because “loud” (or the Italian term,forte) means something different depending on the context.

When we talk about musical dynamics, it’s hard not to talk about space. Metaphorically, pitch and time are the vertical and horizontal dimensions of musical space respectively. I like to think of dynamics, at least to a certain extent, as the third dimension of musical space. It is the depth dimension; but it’s not necessarily metaphorical.

Look at the picture of the concert hall below. Now imagine you are sitting in the back row. The pianist comes out and plays very quietly (Italian,pianissimo). Depending on the acoustics of the hall, you may have to strain to hear what she is playing. Now imagine that you are sitting on stage right next to the pianist, and she plays the same musical passage at the same dynamic level. Naturally, it will sound louder to you. So dynamics are relative to the space where the music is playing, and the location of the listener in that space.

Occasionally, composers have exploited this concept of musical space. For example, in his Symphony No. 2,Resurrection, Gustav Mahler instructs a number of trumpets and horns to play off-stage to create a sense of distance. Gustav Holst calls for two three-part women’s choruses to be located off-stage in his orchestral suite,The Planets. In both cases, the composer achieves a sense of distance. But the distance is real, not metaphorical.

How to be a Dynamic Musician

Dynamics in music is a noun; it is referring to one of the fundamental elements of music. But I’d like to take the term dynamic outside of the musical realm for a moment and think of its common usage today as an adjective. When we think of a person who is dynamic, we think of someone who is active, charismatic, exciting, and full of energy. In technology, dynamic refers to something that changes as needed, such as dynamic memory in your computer that is being refreshed constantly so you don’t lose data.

Now let’s get back to music and think of dynamics as something more than just relative loudness and softness. Dynamics add life to music at every level. As a performer, regardless of the instrument or style you play, you should be conscious of how you dynamically shape your music. When you are sensitive to how you apply dynamics, you can breathe life into an otherwise boring passage of music. When we talk about shaping music dynamically, we mean getting louder (crescendo) or softer (diminuendo) over any given period. It’s a good idea to experiment with different dynamic shapes on the same phrase, especially if it occurs more than once in the piece of music you are playing.

Depending on the instrument you play, you may have the opportunity to shape a single pitch. If you’re a pianist, striking the key the right way will result in the intended dynamic. But once the pitch sounds, there’s nothing more you can do with that pitch. If, however, you’re a violinist or a singer, you can shape every pitch dynamically as you are playing or singing it. I love to hear good performances where it is clear that the performer has considered (whether consciously or not) how to shape their music, even down to a single pitch. Recently I attended a recital of percussion music. One of the performers was playing a marimba using four mallets. At one point, he rolled a single chord using all four mallets. It was fascinating to hear the life in the chord because of how he shaped it with dynamics. It started very quietly, swelled to a climax, and then subsided. It was an exhilarating listening experience to say the least.

So bring more life, intensity and charisma to your music, and keep your music fresh: be a dynamic musician! Learn from skilled musicians by listening to their performances and taking lessons if you have the opportunity. What’s the difference between a great performance and a mediocre one? It’s a combination of many things, but you’ll find dynamics to be an important part of the equation.