What exactly does the word “dynamics” mean in terms of music performance?  Many people assume it means using lots of volume and gesturing, or excessive vocalizing (shouting, roaring, etc.). “He gave a very dynamic performance,” usually means it was excitingly over the top, like an Elton John concert. But that is not necessarily what the word means; the use of dynamics is really much more subtle than that in most circumstances, and does not refer only to volume but to the entire range of sound. In other words, it’s not just the “loud” but also the “soft”, and it applies to every style and every mood of music

Variations in volume are an important element of musical expression. They help give the music the “magic” it needs to bring forth the imaginations and emotions of the listener.  To understand the use of dynamics in music, think about expressive speaking: we’ve all occasionally heard speech-makers who recite monotonously (mono = one; tone = sound),or who shout every word. We don’t speak that way in conversation. Likewise, we certainly don’t want to play our music that way. You can use the interplay of loud and soft (crescendo and decrescendo) as you would when speaking expressively. And, like speech, how you manipulate your music dynamically makes all the difference in its meaning and message.

Think of a sentence such as “I have not been to New York,” and repeat it aloud several times, emphasizing a different word each time. “I have not been to New York” implies that you, rather than someone else, have never been to New York. “I have not been to New York” might be a response to someone claiming you have been there. “I have not been to New York” might imply you’ve only been in the area or have studied about it. “I have not been to New York” can imply you’ve been to other big cities but not New York. The meaning changes significantly through the dynamics you use.

Melodies are set up in phrases; even if there are no lyrics, the phrases are much like those in a sentence. Where the phrases end and begin in music are similar to where the commas in a spoken sentence would be. If the tune has lyrics, phrases are easy to identify, but if there are no lyrics, the shape and timing of the melody will help you figure it out. Choose a short piece of music you know well, and decide which parts you can call phrases. Play the piece softly, but then emphasize the last phrase. Then play it again emphasizing only the second-to-last phrase, and so on. You will find that the meaning or mood of the music changes depending on which phrases you emphasize. You can even do the same with individual notes or short groups of notes.

There is a common tendency to play faster when playing louder, and slower when playing softer. This can negate the intended effects of dynamics. Practice the exercise above using a metronome to keep your beat steady as you purposely change volume. Being able to use dynamics without changing tempo will increase your expressive skills.

Don’t be afraid to use the entire dynamic range of your instrument or your voice, from the merest whisper to the loudest note you can make. Only by experimenting with the full dynamic potential of your instrument or voice will you know what it is capable of.