How do you know when to get louder or softer?
How do you decide the volume of any given note?
How do you make sure anyone listening knows exactly when the big climax occurs?
The View From 30,000 Feet
On the page, our music is a collection of notes and symbols. And we play those notes one beat at a time.
Just as in telling a story, each line should build to the most important idea, or climax.
One way we can understand our music better is to zoom out and find the main “contours” of the music. We can plan our path then use that plan in our practice.
To find the main contours in our music, we can ask some simple questions, then go searching for answers.
Where is the Loudest Moment (the High Point) in the Piece?
We can begin with the question, “Where is the loudest moment in the piece?”
This will give up the highest point. From this, we can gauge all other parts of the music in relation to it. We never get louder than the loudest spot.
Where is the Next Loudest?
In longer pieces of music, there may be many climaxes. Each section of the music may have its own high point. Still, we can find them all, and decide which is the absolute biggest moment.
In music with repeats, we can decide which repeat should be the loudest of the two.
Where is the Quietest Moment?
Likewise, we can look for the quiest moment. This may be at the very beginning or end of the piece, or somewhere within it.
The loudest and quietest moments can form a set of “bookends” within which we can play.
How Will You Connect the Dots?
Once we know the main extremes of dynamics (louds and softs) in our piece, we can decide how to move from one to the next.
Knowing the destination (the high point), we can pace ourselves. We can save some volume and intensity for when we’ll need it. We can ensure that we have the extra power to make the big moment sound bigger than any other point in the piece.
Something is Better than Nothing
If you’re just starting out, or if the music doesn’t have an obvious high point, you can make a guess.
Even if an advanced musician would choose a different high point, your music will still be more expressive and interesting if you’ve decided on one.
There will still be contours and a sense of journey in the music. And it will give you something useful to practice.
With time, we discover new ways of seeing and understanding the music we play. And we can always go back and change things later if we decide to.
We grow as musicians when we consider the music, and make decisions about it. Then we work to communicate those decisions to a listener.
Regardless of what we decide, we still build skills and have more fun playing our tunes.