Pump Up The Volume

Dynamics ( leading on from Spot The Difference )

“That which is static and repetitive is boring. That which is dynamic and random is confusing. In between lies art.” John A. Locke (1632-1704)

“Are you going to come quietly, or do I have to use earplugs?” Spike Milligan (1918 – 2002)

Why do we change volume in a piece? Simply to avoid boredom? Because it’s marked on the music? Or do these choices help us to convey meaning? As usual, the effect of volume is more obvious in our spoken language than in the abstract one of music. If you were undergoing a job interview, would you prefer words “sit down” to be whispered, spoken or roared? Meaning and volume are inseparable. So too are volume and content. A very quiet passage could be either serene or menacing; a very loud one, aggressive or joyous. Dynamics can help us to convey the meaning of a passage – once the meaning has been understood.

Pupils also need to learn to incorporate changes in volume which are merely implied in the music through: density/scarcity of notes; ascending/descending pitch (sequences); repetition; unusual harmony etc. Many older pieces contain no suggestions at all, but the music still needs to live.

In addition to contrasting the volume of one phrase against another, individual phrases need to be shaped. This means stressing some notes at the expense of others to highlight the meaning e.g. Happy birthday to you… When this is missing the result can be a little like the musical version of poor speech synthesis.

Dynamics can be tricky for guitarists – no jokes please. Compared to many instruments, the dynamic (volume) range is very narrow and some tricks have to be employed to avoid running out of options when increasing or decreasing volume. The most common of these is dropping the volume before beginning a crescendo*.

In our digital age where precision is a default rather than a luxury, traditional dynamic markings strike many pupils as a little vague. The primary colours of volume are: piano (quiet) & forte (loud).These are mediated by mezzo (fairly) and increased by doubling up letters e.g. pp. Many pupils do not easily feel what the difference ought to be when changing from, for example, mf to p. Sometimes, this naïve but effective table of volumes helps:

pp p mp mf f ff
1 3 4.5 6 8 10

The previously vague change of mf to p can now be seen to be exactly halving the volume.

* No word from the lexicon of musical jargon is misused in the press as often as crescendo (from the Latin crescere – to grow). The phrase “reached a crescendo” appears with depressing frequency. A crescendo is a state of change – like acceleration. You can reach a top speed, but not an acceleration. When I started teaching in 1982, the eminently sensible initiative of language across the curriculum was all the rage – after all, few concepts are the sole property of any one subject area. Is this idea still in place? Asking this, I feel like the soldier, knee-deep in unfamiliar foliage, wondering if the war is still in progress.