Ryan Buckner takes us through the fundamentals of musical dynamics, the element that brings light and shade to your songwriting
ish you could write music that fully expresses your thoughts and ideas? Many songwriters struggle with this for a variety of reasons. One of the most common reasons is they simply have not spent enough time writing music: the truth is, you will need to write a lot of songs before you can become a highly expressive songwriter.
That said, another major reason why many musicians take a long time to improve as songwriters is that they ignore one or more important elements in music. So in this article, we will discuss one of the most overlooked musical elements, why most musicians ignore it and how you can use it to better express yourself in music. The musical element in question is dynamics.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Dynamics? I already know about that… it just means making music louder and softer,” then you have already begun to overlook the unique creative qualities of this musical element. This is the mistake many musicians make! You see, many songwriters overlook the element of dynamics while thinking about things like which chords to use, how to write a melody or what song lyrics to write.
As a result, they miss out on one of the most effective musical tools for powerful self-expression. Learn to fully utilise dynamics in your music, on the other hand, and you will:
- Create a totally new dimension in your music to emphasize each individual section or part.
- Make your music more creative and expressive without altering a single note.
- Gain the power to drastically change the feeling of intensity in a song.
The Fundamentals Of Musical Dynamics
In general, dynamics refer to the overall volume of a section in a song, individual musical part or note. To express the idea of specific dynamics in written music, the following symbols are used:
|(fortissimo) means “very loud”|
|(forte) means “loud”|
|(mezzo-forte) means “moderately loud”|
|(mezzo-piano) means “moderately soft”|
|(piano) means “soft”|
|(pianissimo) means “very soft”|
|(forte piano) means “loud, then soft”|
|(sfrozando) means “sudden accent”|
|(crescendo) means “gradually louder”|
|(decrescendo) means “gradually softer”|
So how can you make use of dynamics more effectively? Here are some ideas…
1. Give More Life To A Melody
To make any melody stick out, emphasize it by using varying dynamics. For instance, begin the melody loud and gradually reduce the volume until the notes are softer. This technique is known as a ‘decrescendo’. Additionally, alter the volume level of different notes within a melody to make them contrast with each other and stick out. This is especially useful for adding interest to repeating musical parts in your songs. This will give you the power to express yourself in different ways without altering any of the actual pitches in your melody.
2. Enhance Musical Expression Through Contrast
By using contrasting dynamics you can quickly grab the attention of anyone listening to your music. For example, think about the common songwriting formula used in rock ballads. For the most part, the song will consist of softly played acoustic guitar and vocal parts. Many times, the introduction (and beginning verse and chorus) will contain no percussion whatsoever. Then, to provide contrast, the drums will begin playing during the second verse. As an even bigger contrast, the songwriter may even include a solo/break section with electric guitar (only to return to the soft, acoustic guitar parts once the section has ended). This simple formula is highly effective at gaining the attention of the listener due to its contrasting dynamics. You can use this concept in your music to contrast not only entire song sections, but different notes within a single melody or musical idea.
3. Surprise Your Listener With Silence
One musical tool that is frequently overlooked is silence. Silence (or ‘rests’) is an excellent way to increase the expressive impact of dynamics. Imagine you were listening to loud music with headphones and suddenly the battery ran out on your mp3 player. This would instantly grab your attention. This reaction can be recreated by using silence to build up anticipation in the listener for what is to come next. Use this idea in your own music by experimenting with different lengths of silence in-between your musical phrases to get different expressive results.
Movie scores are a great place to hear well-crafted musical dynamics in action. Think of scenes like a couple breaking up, then making up at the airport, or a man making his way through a dark basement in a horror film. Notice how the music will be quieter in more thoughtful moments, swell at moments of high tension, and sometimes drop away altogether.
By making dynamics a main focus in your songwriting, you will be able to write music that better expresses specific ideas and emotions while adding more depth to the individual parts of your songs.
Words: Ryan Buckner
Ryan Buckner is an accomplished guitarist and songwriter who has been writing instructional material about guitar playing, musical composition and music theory since 2006. He helps musicians worldwide learn how to write songs step by step, with songwriter resources and musician interviews, on his website: www.songwritinglessonsonline.com. Also become more expressive as a songwriter with this free songwriting elements instructional guide — How To Improve Your Songwriting Using The 7 Musical Elements