Dynamics Explained: Instrument Context

The application of dynamics may well be the most misunderstood and therefore neglected aspect of a performance, especially here in the Maldives.

This article was inspired by a comment from Faya. Hence, this is the first part of a series of tutorials, in my attempt to explain dynamics in the contexts of:

  • Instrument Context (individual dynamics)
  • Band Context
  • Sound Context

And finally, how the three contexts are inter-related.

An Explanatory Exercise

For explanatory purposes, let’s take the human voice as the instrument. You may use your instrument if you are more comfortable with it – the same applies. The table below should give you an idea of what is meant by very soft to very loud and everything in between.

Table 1. Dynamics notation with meanings and application to the Human Voice
Abbreviation Italian Word Meaning Human Voice
ppp pianississimo Very Soft Whispering
pp pianissimo Softer Almost a whisper
p piano Soft Softer than speaking
mp mezzo-piano Medium Soft Speaking
mf mezzo-forte Medium loud
f forte Loud Louder than speaking
ff fortissimo Louder Speaking Loud
fff fortississimo Very Loud Yelling

To understand this, let’s try a little exercise. First speak at normal volume and then try to speak louder and louder until you start yelling.  Tip: Start counting “One, Two, Three, Four …” and so on, if you run out of what to sing or say. Next, speak at a normal volume again but, this time try speaking softer and softer until it becomes a whisper.

Once you’ve got the feel of what’s going on here, try to replicate the same dynamics with your instrument using only your effort (touch – not the volume, if your instrument is electric or electronic. Leave the volume knob as its optimal position: See Guitar Tone Tutorial).

See if you can sing or play your scales starting with mf (mezzo-forte) – moderately loud. Sing/play your scales and arpeggios, ascending and descending, across your compass (range). After you attain some consistency, identify and remember that dynamic level to be your mf.

Next try the same process for each dynamic level from mf to fff and mf to ppp, and try to stick to the particular dynamic during each run. It would also help if you did this at a consistent tempo.

Can you play all your scales and arpeggios at consistent tempos and consistent dynamics?  For example, at 60 beats per minute (bpm) at mfmp and ff?  Also, at at 120 bpm at these dynamics?

At which dynamic level towards the extremes (ppp & fff), do you start losing control? One dynamic level before you lose control from either direction, marks the the useful extremes of your dynamic range. Of course, with more practice it would be possible to widen your dynamics.  Let me reiterate that the point here is to able to do it consistently, over-and-over again, and by purpose.

It should also be noted that, just as each instrument has a compass (range in terms of pitch), it also has a dynamic range. For example, an standard drum set has a much higher dynamic range than a banjo.

Application

You would need to be able to play your scales, in a consistent tempo (from around 60 bpm ~ 140 bpm); at a consistent level, over a period of time (dexterity), to be technically proficient to deliver good dynamics during a performance.  Why is good dynamics important?

Dynamics is important because, it will almost be quite impossible to communicate an emotion without proper dynamics.  Having good dynamics would add an expressive dimension to your message (piece or performance).  For example, how do you think you’d sound, if you said the following phrase:

“I am so happy for you!”

… in a monotonous voice (pitch) in piano (softer than speaking)?  Would you sound happy, sad or even fake?

Similarly, one would sound equally wrong, if one played at the wrong dynamic!

Further Reading

NOTE:  I’ll try to publish the remaining two articles about dynamics: in a Band context and in a Sound context soon.  In the meantime, please do leave a line, by commenting with your thoughts.

  • Mohamed Hamy

    Great Article!!! Very well explained. Looking forward for more.

  • Faya

    Thanks for the article Fayid.

    Here’s a good article specifically on audio compression which readers might find useful.

    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep09/articles/compressionmadeeasy.htm

    • Tks for the interesting link. A note for readers: the above link may pertain more to mixers and post-production, although the basics apply.

  • Great write up. Didn’t know about the notation before. Looking forward for next two parts, especially the last.

    • @primary0 I should have highlighted that the abbreviated dynamics notation is used in music notation.