A word can mean different things depending on how softly or loudly it is spoken. How do you feel about the word mother, for instance, when it is whispered, or spoken, or shouted – or thought but not spoken aloud? The volume of our voices is closely related to how we feel. In music, tensions can be tightened and released by changing the volume of the music, its dynamics.
Dynamics in the Renaissance era
In Renaissance polyphony, each voice has its own independent phrasing and dynamics because of the independent roles of the voices. There were no dynamic markings written into the music at this time; the words and the character of the music indicated to the performers which dynamics to use at any given time.
Dynamics in the Baroque era
One of the many musical developments of the Baroque era was terraced dynamics, meaning the contrasting alternation of loud (forte, f) and soft (piano, p) volume, or dynamics. Sometimes these were marked in the score, but for the most part the dynamics were agreed upon by the performers or were dictated by conventions that were known to all musicians.
Dynamics in the Classical era
The Baroque-era practice of terraced dynamics, i.e. sharply defined changes from one dynamic to another, was expanded with the use of gradually increasing and decreasing volume, known as crescendo and diminuendo. In keyboard instruments, the harpsichord and clavichord, which were only capable of producing one dynamic, were replaced by the pianoforte, where the player could vary the loudness of the sound with the strength of the touch.
Dynamics in the Romantic era
The increasing size of orchestras and the wider range of instruments available made it possible to explore extreme dynamics. Composers called for very soft and very loud playing, along with long gradual increasing (crescendo) and decreasing (diminuendo) dynamics.
Dynamics in Impressionism
Dynamics became more detailed as fragments and figures each generated their own dynamics. This resulted in added responsibility for individual musicians within the orchestra to follow the dynamics.
Dynamics in expressionism
The search for extreme expressiveness is also apparent in extreme dynamics. As musical expression became increasingly intense and concise, every note might have a separate dynamic marking, with extremely loud and extremely soft volumes appearing side by side or concurrently. Dynamics were an important dimension of expression, but other means were closely associated.
Dynamics in the modern era
Dynamics in music today reaches beyond the extremes of the symphony orchestra through sound technology. Sound technology enables not only reinforcement of the creating and releasing of musical tension but also spatial effects.
Elements of music
Rhythm is a part of our daily lives. We often talk about a sense of rhythm. We have weekly rhythms, our bodies have rhythm, and so does dancing and any other regular activity. Rhythm is often the element that makes us move or groove along to music.
A melody may stick in your ear for an entire day. If we hum a familiar song, it is the melody that we are humming, and melodies have the ability to remind us of important moments.
Harmony symbolises tranquillity and peaceful coexistence. In music, harmony is what we hear underlying the melody. Harmony can be discordant and tense. Often harmony sets up tensions that are then satisfyingly resolved.
Our everyday life is full of forms, shapes and structures. We easily recognise things like shoes, vases or chairs on the basis of their form. If we hear the word ‘school’, we have a fairly good idea of what the building may look like. Musical compositions also have specific forms and structures.
Our eyes are used to seeing colour. The sky in the morning is different from the sky at midday. A person’s face may be pale, bright or sombre. We can also say we perceive colours with our ears. Sometimes the key to a piece of music is whether it sounds bright, soft or dark.
We can be quiet, whisper, talk or shout. What we say changes in meaning as the volume changes. Changes in volume, known as dynamics, are among the most powerful and most expressive elements of music.