When we learn a new piece of music, we bring our high hopes with us.
No one sets out to play bland, lifeless music. Yet, it happens.
What if there were a way to breathe life into every piece, regardless of difficulty?
What if there were simple “rules of thumb” that would take 85% of the guesswork out of practice, so everything came out flowing and beautiful?
The Short Version (5 min)
The Long Version (15 min)
What are “Dynamics”?
“Dynamics” is the musical term for volume. Loud vs. quiet.
Dynamics can refer to:
- The general volume (i.e. “This whole piece is loud.”)
- The note-by-note changes in volume (such as notes getting louder or softer).
Each note has its volume. And how that volume relates to the notes around it makes up, in part, the emotional expression of the music.
Intentional dynamics make music more expressive
Musical Jargon Guide
- Dynamics – Louds and softs, swells and fades
- Crescendo – Get louder
- Decrescendo – Get quieter
- Forte (pronounced “for-tay”) – Loud
- Piano – Quiet (also the name of the instrument)
- Accent – A note that stands out from the notes around it
- Phrasing – How we play a given passage, including all musical choices (such as dynamics)
Why Play with Dynamics?
Volume (dynamics) is one of the most powerful tool we guitarists have to play expressively.
Actors change the volume of their speech to make more of an impact. We do the same on the guitar. We help listeners understand the music by demonstrating the emotional ideas.
Dynamics and Technical Problems
We can sometimes solve technical problems (aka “tricky spots”) using dynamics.
Sometimes, a particular phrasing can solve issues of notes connecting or forward momentum. (“Phrasing” here means the choice of dynamics for each note.)
The Main Goal of Musical Expression
One of our main goals in deciding how to phrase our music is to keep the action moving forward.
In practice, we work on small “bits”. We polish each bit in isolation.
But the music will fail to reach its potential unless all those “bits” connect.
As an analogy, consider a paragraph composed of lovely but unrelated sentences. We can likewise fail to connect the different parts of the music. Our music then becomes disorganized and confusing. Each “bit” works on its own, but not as a group.
When we decide on dynamics, we can enter with the goal of drawing the music forward. This means reducing the number of climaxes. We can build to high moments, but then pull back (get quieter) at the last minute.
This way, the listener stays engaged and wonders what’s coming next. (And the real climax is that much higher for the unresolved tension we’ve created.)
The Long Line
“The long line” is the concept of making musical ideas as large and long as possible. Instead of several short phrases, we connect them to create one longer phrase.
An analogy in comedy would be the one-liner jokes popular decades ago. A comedy show consisted of a string of these short jokes.
Contrast that with the long set-ups and stories comedians now use to deliver a punchline.
For entertainment purposes, three longer stories are more engaging and personally meaningful than 60 back-to-back one-liners.
We can take a similar approach in our pieces.
3 Dynamics Rules that Work 85% of the Time
These rules for dynamics work most of the time to draw the music forward and keep listeners engaged.
As with any rule, there are exceptions. But these serve as a solid starting point.
If we train ourselves to use these rules by default, we polish pieces faster and to a higher level.
Note: These rules are for melodic lines. The lines could be in any voice (melody, bass, or harmony). If there is a chord at the same time as a melody note, the volume of the melody note determines the volume of the chord (with the melody note balanced on top).
Pre-Game Warm-Up: See the Note-By-Note Movement
To apply the rules below, we need to isolate a musical line. Often (but not always), the notes in a line will all have stems pointing the same direction.
Once we’ve identified a line, we can notice how the notes move up or down from one to the next.
Each note is either higher, lower, or the same pitch as the note before and after.
— Rule #1: If the notes go up, get quieter.
Within a musical line (usually the melody, but any line), when the notes go up, get quieter.
More specifically, arrive at the highest notes with a decrescendo. This means we arrive to the high note getting quieter.
This also includes the easily broken rule: Don’t accent the high note (except at the big spots).
— Rule #2: If the notes go down, get louder.
The opposite, descending notes (going down in pitch) get louder.
— Rule #3: Repeated notes get louder.
When you have two or more repeated notes, start them quiet and get louder.
This creates movement and anticipation in an otherwise static line.
Starting loud and getting quieter, so the sound dies away, often (but not always) reduces the energy and vitality of the music. This can be difficult to recover from (meaning that listeners may tune out and stop paying attention.)
Special Options for Longer Lines
For longer lines, we may handle the dynamics differently. But the rules above do still apply to the last few notes of the line.
With long ascending (going up) lines, we can:
Get steadily quieter the entire way up.
Get louder first, then quiet down for the last three or four notes.
If we have a long descending line, we can:
Start quiet and get steadily louder.
Get softer (quieter) toward the middle of the line then louder towards the end.
Play the first 2/3 of the line the same volume, then do a massive swell at the end.
When in Doubt, Go Note by Note.
As a starting place with any piece, we can use the rules above to decide the volume of each note.
There are also other “rules” that may contradict these, such as the “Long-Short“. When rules contradict each other, we must decide which to follow. This involves experimentation and critical listening. In time, we discover what works best in most situations.
These Rules are for Lines, Not Arpeggio Patterns
To clarify, these rules do not apply to non-melodic music, such as arpeggio pieces. Arpeggios are finger-picking patterns. As such, the notes do not usually form musical lines. In that case we use other methods to decide on dynamics.
How Will I Know When to Do Something Different?
The rules above work well a large majority of the time. If we use this formula as a default solution, the music will make sense and be beautiful ~85% of the time.
3 rules, 85% there. Very high-leverage.
But this leaves a small amount of time where a different choice would be more effective.
For instance, the climax of a piece may need to do the opposite of the rules above. Likewise, the ending may need something different.
This other ~15% is where experience, artistry, creativity and experimentation come into play.
Ingrain This as a Habit, and Worlds Open
These rules for dynamics may be difficult or inconsistent at first. But in time, they become habit.
In time, we see music differently. We notice how the notes relate. We see the rises and falls of the music. When this begins to happen, our entire musical experience changes.
- We learn music faster.
- Our technical abilities and control improve.
- We hear more nuance in music.
- We practice more “musically”.
- We find more emotional content in the music we play.
In other words, we don’t just play notes – we play music.
How to Practice Dynamics
To ingrain these rules of dynamics, begin easy and add complexity as you can. Some ideas:
- Start with one note. Practice getting louder and softer.
- Do the above with the metronome, with a given number of clicks per swell or fade.
- Practice playing with three levels of sound: quiet, medium, and loud.
- Play simple finger patterns using these phrasing rules (for example,1234–4321 on one string).
- Use scales or snippets of scale patterns for practice.
- Play easy pieces, well below your current level, with a focus on shaping the dynamics.
Isn’t Music Subjective? (or, Can’t I Just “feel” it?)
Often, the first response to anything to do with musical interpretation is defensive. A common response is, “It’s completely subjective. You have to feel it.”
Sometimes this may be true. But what about those times when we don’t feel it? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a plan, just in case?
And this also assumes that any choice is as good as any other. Like in everyday speech, some things work better than others. For instance, we phrase questions one way and and statements another.
If there are “rules” or tendencies that communicate well, we can train ourselves to use them by default. Then, we can spend our energy on the few spots that demand something different.
Just because we like something doesn’t make it good.
The more we understand something (anything), the more nuance we can appreciate.
Great chefs know food. When they say something is good, it comes from experience and knowledge. They’ve learned and developed the criteria with which to judge. The relative same holds true for jewelers, cabinet-makers, landscape architects and auto-mechanics.
Just because we like a certain food or song doesn’t make it good. It only means we like it. Our like or dislike doesn’t imply any level of quality. (We may love a Chevy Nova or a week-old baguette, but it doesn’t make them “good”.)
As we study music more and more deeply, we’re able to hear more. We’re able to appreciate finer and finer subtleties. And performances that we used to find stellar may sound campy or heavy-footed.
This is the blessing and curse of increased awareness. It’s a double-edged sword.
Progress, not Perfection: Just Do Something
This method of phrasing may take years to ingrain. And that’s fine. There’s no hurry.
Decide a volume for a note, and play it at that volume. The rest will follow. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to happen all the time.
We build control day by day, moment by moment. The quality of our focus and attention on one note will determine how beautifully we play.
At first, it may feel difficult or unimportant. But keep with it, and you’ll enjoy making music more than you thought possible.