To play beautiful music, we need two main elements:
- The required technical ability (our hands can do what we tell them to)
- Good musical phrasing (we know what we want and can tell our hands how to make it happen),
First things first, our hands have to be able to do what’s necessary, which is why we practice technique. Then we have to breathe life into the notes. Either alone doesn’t create beautiful music. We need both.
Learning the notes on the page is straightforward, if at times tricky. The goal is clear: play the right note with the right finger at the right time.
It takes a bit more to master the phrasing of any given piece. It’s the “next level” in our playing, and the part that leads a listener to an emotional experience.
Music Thrives on Contrast
As humans, we like contrast. We notice when something stands out. We get curious. We stay interested.
And music is no different. It’s more engaging and fun when there is something surprising or different.
In this way, music is like color. For example, if everything in a house is beige, we may not notice anything in particular. Likewise, if everything in a house is brightly colored and patterned, we still may not notice anything in particular.
The trick is to create contrast with specific intentions in mind. Not just for the sake of contrast, but to serve specific purposes. We may want to create a sense of momentum, bring attention to a change in harmony, or set a certain mood.
Volume is a Handy Tool
One of the best tools we have at our musical disposal is volume. Eskimos have many words for snow, because they know it so well. We have many musical terms for different levels of volume. As we advance, we can discern smaller differences in volume. But at first, we can ignore the jargon and use a different method (more on this below).
We can draw listeners in using volume and contrast.
The most important part is that we make the decisions of how to use it. As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” If we’re to play beautiful music, we will use volume. And this means that we’ll have to decide the volume we’ll use at any given time.
But it doesn’t have to be complex.
The 3 Main Levels of Sound
While we can (and should) use the full range of sound, from very quiet to very loud, sometimes less is more. Especially when we’re first learning a piece.
When we give ourselves infinite options, we may end up not making a decision at all.
While we decide what to do with the music, we can simplify all the volume-related choices down to just three: Soft/quiet, a bit louder, and loud. Small, medium, large.
Note: The three levels of sound used in this way is a tool. It’s a device we can use to better understand the music. Once understood and sculpted, we can refine further by using more nuanced changes in volume.
High Level: Loud
Loud on the classical guitar is different than loud on a saxophone or piano. Still, loud is loud.
As our ability-levels rise, we get better at playing loud. We get better tone and play with more speed. And the only way to get there is to practice playing loud.
Middle Level: “Inside Voice”
The middle option is where most playing occurs. Chances are, if we pick up the guitar and play a few notes, they will be at this volume-level.
One way to think of this level is as an “inside voice”. The level at which we speak indoors in normal circumstances.
Lower Level: Quiet or Soft
On the guitar, this lowest level is where we get the best range. The guitar can only get so loud, but it can get extremely quiet.
When we limit ourselves to these three levels, we can think of the difference between soft and medium as about the same as the difference between medium and loud. It should be obvious when we hear it.
Now that we’ve simplified matters of volume down to just the three, how do we use them?
How to Use Levels of Sound: #1 Overall Volume
One way to use the three levels of sound is as an overall rule. For any given phrase, section or piece, we can set a level and play at it.
When we change from one level to another, this is known as “terraced dynamics” (“dynamics” is the musical term for volume).
How to Practice
To practice terraced dynamics, play one open string (or other note) 4 or 8 times very loudly. Then the same note at a medium volume for the same number of repetitions. Then again very quietly. Finally, back to medium, then repeat.
Use a steady rhythm and aim for a consistent sound, both in tone and volume.
When you can play the contrasting levels smoothly in a steady rhythm, then play fewer notes per level. For example, play three notes at each volume. Then two. And finally one. As you progress, listen to make sure all the notes are even, with none different from the others in the group.
How to Use Levels of Sound #2: Note by Note
In a piece of music, or in exercises, we can also plan the volume note by note. This is very useful with melodies.
At a high level, we have a specific plan for each note of a piece. We base this plan on larger musical considerations and ideas (like this one).
But at any level, we can pay attention to each note. We can notice when one note pops out on accident. Once noticed, we can then practice to keep it even.
One musical device, the accent, uses this method. The accented note is louder than the notes around it. This means we have to play the other notes quieter than the marked accented note, or they would be too similar.
How to Practice
One way to practice playing individual notes at alternating levels of sound is to continue the exercise above to the point where you’re practicing one note per level.
Another method of practicing this is to use accents.
First play a scale or exercise (or one note repeated) very even and quiet. (Note: always exaggerate quiet – as quiet as you can still hear it and keep it in rhythm).
Then, play every fourth note very loud. As a tip, the note just after the loud note will often stay too loud. Practice the sharp contrast between the quiet note, then the loud note, then back to the quiet note.
You can use accent practice with scales, arpeggios (aka fingerpicking patterns), pieces of music, or anything else.
How to Use Levels of Sound #3: Musical Voices
In classical guitar music, we often play a melody, a bass line, and other accompanying notes, all at the same time. We call these different parts “voices”.
You can also have three levels of sound determined by the musical voice.
As a rule, here are the levels of sound for voices:
- Melody – Loud
- Bass – Medium
- Interior voices – Soft/quiet
Of course sometimes this will change, but most of the time this is the optimal scenario.
Read more about the music voices and how to identify them in your music here: How to Decipher Classical Guitar Music
How to Practice
To play all the voices at the right level, you first need to be able to play consistently at any chosen volume. So practice the two methods above first.
Playing one note in a full chord louder than the others uses what we call “balance”. To bring one note louder in a “chunk” chord (many notes plucked at the same time), we use a special technique, detailed here.
To learn more about chord balance, see this article: How to Master Chord Balance on Classical Guitar
Progress, Not Perfection (Any is Better)
Like much of classical guitar practice, these skills take time to ingrain.
The goal should not be perfection, but progress. If you practice, you’ll be better this time next year. And even better the year after that. That’s progress.
Don’t expect to have all this mastered in a week. And you don’t have to play every note perfectly all the time.
Instead, use it where you can. If you’re playing a tune, and you make one small change based on your practice of the three levels of sound, great! That’s all that matters.
If you can make your music a few percent better, this will compound over time.
We’ll always know ways we could play something better. We’ll always strive for just a bit more speed, clarity, tone, balance, etc. This striving is part of an ongoing practice. Success lies in the practice itself, not the end goal.
All we can do is
- listen to each note
- and play with intention.
As long as we tick those two boxes, we’re on the right track.