The Louds and Softs in Music
Guiding Question: “Why should I use dynamics, and how do I use them?”
Area of Interaction: Homo Faber (Mankind the Creator)
What are dynamics?
Dynamics are the louds and softs in music; that is, the volume. As you know, music can be played loudly or quietly. “Happy Birthday” can be sung very softly (to a baby, for instance), or very loudly (at a crazy party for a teenager, for instance). That’s the idea of dynamics!
Why have dynamics?
Dynamics are just one Element of Music (an element is a basic part) that composers and musicians can manipulate or change to help them put across the meaning they want from a song. For example, “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a song traditionally associated with the city of New Orleans. It is usually performed fast (tempo allegro), loud (forte dynamics), and in a happy key (major tonality). This makes the song sound like a party: happy, carefree, and energetic. (
But if a composer or performer wants to send a different message, she might perform the song slowly (tempo lento), quietly (dynamic of piano), and in a sad key (minor tonality). This might make the song sound sad, mournful, or blue, as if the whole city or nation is grieving for the victims and the destruction of hurricane Katrina, which nearly wiped out New Orleans in 2005. ( Dynamics (and the other Elements of Music) help give the music meaning.
A lot of music I listen to doesn’t seem to have dynamics. Why is that?
That’s true! Most music on the radio (rock, rap, hip hop, blues, country, oldies) doesn’t change much in loudness. If it did, you’d have to be constantly turning the volume up (so you could hear the quiet parts) and down (so the loud parts wouldn’t deafen you). Having to constantly change the volume on a car radio, CD player, or I-pod could get pretty irritating! Recording artists and producers know that! So they use a technology called compression, which automatically makes everything pretty much the same volume (compression takes out the dynamics and makes everything about the same loudness). That way, you’ll be more likely to buy their stuff.
But “classical” CD’s and records usually leave the dynamics alone; they don’t compress them (exception: sometimes dynamics do get compressed if the classical CD is going to get played on the radio or TV). The dynamics are left in because a lot of classical listeners want to hear those changes in dynamics: dynamic changes make the music more powerful, interesting, or expressive (it means more to them). To be honest, some classical music without the dynamics can be boring!
Why is that?
Music is all about expressing (saying or showing) something human, and human thoughts and feelings can be expressed extremely well with music (sometimes better with music alone than music with words!). Manipulating or controlling the Elements of Music (such as dynamics) helps composers and performers make the music say what they want it to say. Remember: a lot of classical music doesn’t have any words (or the words are in some foreign language the listener doesn’t even understand). So if the composer or performer doesn’t use the Elements of Music to help the music say something, the music might not say anything! BORING!
OK, so how are dynamics written?
Dynamics are written into the music by the composer or arranger. Performers can make up their own dynamics and write them in, or just play them as they see fit. Like many musical terms, the ones composers use for dynamics are written with Italian words or with special symbols.
Why are dynamics written in Italian?
European music was first written down in Italy. Italians certainly didn’t invent music: music has been around as long as people have. And other nations or cultures could well have been writing music in their own ways long before the Italians did. But that’s where the writing down of European music really got started. So naturally, the