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The Lesser Known Musical Elements: Dynamics

by Dennis Winge

Just last night I was hosting a jam session at one point during which
there was a clarinetist jamming with a singer/ guitarist, bass, piano, and
drums.  The singer had the mic and when
the clarinetist went to solo, he was not near enough to use it.  He consequently was getting a little drown
out by the rest of the band but never did it occur to any of those musicians to
bring the volume down so they could hear him better. 

Unfortunately, this scenario is very common in jam sessions, where the
skill levels tend to vary.  If you want
to immediately boost your skill level, simply become aware of dynamics and how
to use them.  If you haven’t thought
about dynamics heretofore you simply don’t know what you’re missing. 

Have you ever been to a classical music concert?  I hope you answered yes, because it is almost
always a valuable and enjoyable experience that everyone should have, and
frequently at that.  In almost every city
there are classical concerts happening all the time and many of them are
free.  In my particular town there are
several free concerts per month at the local university and at the local
college.  Make it a date with your family
and I can almost guarantee you enjoy it greatly.

Why do I bring this up here? 
Because classical music in general uses dynamics consistently, and to
great effect.  Have you been up front as
an audience member when the movement gets slow and quiet and just the cellos or
brass section carries out a soul-searching melody, only to be contrasted a few
minutes later with the timpanist bashing cymbals and the entire orchestra
playing to the hilt? 

Generally speaking, in the rock and pop world, dynamics are woefully
scarce.  Perhaps this is in part due to
the over-compressed music we consistently hear on the radio.   Perhaps it is that in one-on-one music
lessons, the topic of dynamics never comes up. 
I for one never had a lesson on dynamics the entire time I took lessons,
which span several decades. 

Just by being aware of dynamics can give you much more control on the
emotional response you are seeking from an audience.  However, you may have to practice bringing
the music softer and louder on your own. 
You may have to bring your basic playing volume down a notch (or several
notches) because your default comfort zone could be near full volume and then
there may be not much room to increase. 

Perhaps some people are like I used to be, thinking that I want my music
to be exciting!  I didn’t want to play
softly because I simply wanted people to pay attention.  Well, first of all, we as Westerners have
become “anaesthetized,” just like we are with sugar in our food.  So many foods have sugar in them that we are
by-and-large just used to it.  But when
you get a delicately prepared dish in which you can taste all the subtle
flavors and there is no sugar in it, it can be truly delicious!  Similarly, when you hear a piece of music you
love, the change in dynamics can really help send you over the moon. 

You may also need to communicate a desire to use dynamics with your
fellow musicians.  Simply ask if everyone
can try playing a certain section of the music softer and more delicately, and
another section full-on.  I guarantee, if
you have chosen your sections appropriately, the musicians will love it and so
will the audience.

I know that the concept of dynamics is easy to understand
intellectually, but in order to really grasp the extent of its power, you have
to consistently work with it.  Perhaps
you could record yourself and listen back to it a few days later.  Listen to whether or not you were able to
change dynamics and also what emotional effects those changes in dynamics had
on you as a listener.

There are many examples of great use of dynamics in rock/ pop music, but
the first one that comes to my mind right now is Larry Carlton’s Paris
Concert.  Listen to how Larry brings the
trio down to almost a whisper at times. 
Doesn’t this give so much more power and meaning to the louder

I also have recorded a short video just with acoustic guitar to help
illustrate the power of dynamics.

If you have examples that you’d like to share examples of pieces of
music you love that have great dynamics, I’d love to see/ hear them.  In the meantime, have fun practicing.  See you at the next classical concert! 🙂

About the author: Dennis Winge is a professional guitarist living in
New York with a passion for vegan food and bhakti yoga.  If you are interested in taking Guitar Lessons
in Ithaca
, NY, then be sure to contact Dennis!