Would you like to play with greater expression? There are many factors that contribute to expressive playing, one of the most important being a good use of dynamics. I’ve been teaching the ‘3 layers’ way of thinking about dynamics to my students recently, as it’s a nice strategy to help add contrast and nuance for more expressive playing. Here is the basic idea.
Layer 1: Background
This is the most broad layer, and includes the dynamic instructions you’re likely to see written in the score, e.g. f, mf, mp, p, etc. These markers often apply to whole sections of music (or at least whole lines or phrases), and tell you the general volume level of that section. Think of these as averages – if a section is marked f (forte, meaning strong/loud), we are not necessarily expected to play every single note in this section at the same level of loudness, as this will sound dull and inexpressive. Rather, it gives us an idea of the average level of the section, a kind of baseline from which certain notes will stand out, and others will fall back. I sometimes like to compare these dynamic markings to the ways we use our voices:
Forte ( f ) might indicate a shout
Mezzo forte ( mf ) might indicate a louder speaking voice, or ‘outdoor voice’
Mezzo piano ( mp ) might indicate a softer speaking voice, or ‘indoor voice’
Piano ( p ) might indicate a whisper.
If we shout, we may still have variation between individual words and syllables, but the whole phrase could be described as generally loud. Layer 1 is this general blocking out of loudness levels.
Layer 2: Middle ground
This is our phrase shaping, and if it is indicated in a score, it’s usually as ‘hairpins’ that denote crescendi and diminuendi. By gradually increasing or decreasing the volume in a phrase, we can give it a sense of shape and movement that stops it from sounding flat. The effect of this can be dramatic or subtle. If you’d like to add shape to a phrase using dynamics where no dynamic instructions are given (i.e. there are no hairpins in the phrase), think about where you’d like the ‘peak’ or climactic point of the phrase to be. This is often very obvious when you sing the phrase out loud or in your head. Once you’ve pinpointed this peak, you can consciously grow (crescendo) towards it, then allow the volume to gradually drop off once the peak has passed. You may often be doing this already without realising it – the effect should be natural and musical when done well.
If you are unsure where the peak of a phrase should be even after singing it or hearing it in your head, a good rule of thumb to apply is the ‘golden ratio’, or something close to it. This is a mathematical ratio of about two thirds to one third that can be found in many instances in the natural world, and is used as a compositional technique in many art forms such as architecture, visual art, film, theatre and music. Think about where the dramatic peak is in most films or theatre shows (e.g. the big action scenes, or the height of the drama and energy), and in most cases it’s around the end of the second act into the start of the third (final) act. In most pop songs, the bridge or middle eight leading into the final chorus is about two thirds of the way through, and in the first movement of a classical sonata you’ll usually find that this same point is where the central development section leads to a recapitulation of the original themes (i.e. a climax of interest and excitement). In a limerick, this point is where you’ll find the shorter rhyming couplet. You can find many other examples of this ratio online, as well as a proper mathematical explanation with diagrams.
To use it yourself (or an approximation, at least), find a place about two-thirds of the way through a phrase or section in the piece you’re studying, and it’s quite likely that this will be a good place for a swell or peak in dynamics.
You can apply middle ground phrase shaping to short sub-phrases, long phrases, or entire sections of the music you’re playing.
Layer 3: Foreground
This is our most detailed layer, and involves the dynamic levels of individual notes. In sheet music, you might sometimes get a sense of this through accent markings, but often you’ll have to decide upon these details yourself as they likely won’t be written in (this is the kind of nuance that is down to you as the performer to bring to the piece, and is what will make the music sound incredibly expressive and unique to you).
When we speak naturally, we will usually emphasise certain words or syllables to strengthen their impact or meaning; we will also do the opposite to other words or syllables that are less important (we might call these ‘ghost notes’).
Say the following phrase out loud: ‘it’s really hot today’. Which syllables did you naturally exaggerate? It’s likely that you strengthened either the first syllable of ‘really’, or perhaps the word ‘hot’. Which syllables were very weak by comparison? For me, ‘it’s’, the last syllable of ‘really’, and the first of ‘today’ were the weakest. For some syllables, it’s obvious why we’ve done this – ‘it’s’, for example, is a short and common word that is not the most important part of this statement (if you removed it, the phrase would not be grammatically correct, but would still make complete sense to the person you were speaking to, unlike the removal of ‘hot’, for example). For other syllables, we weaken them to aid the flow of the phrase – the first syllable of ‘today’ is necessary in the statement, but is flanked on either side by syllables that are stressed, and so we weaken it subconsciously in contrast. This creates a weak-strong weak-strong weak-strong metric effect that is known as ‘iambic’ in poetry (‘it’s really hot outside’ can be described as iambic trimeter as the weak-strong pattern occurs three times in a row).
In musical phrases, decide which notes should be emphasised (again, sing out loud or in your head to determine this), and make them a little louder than their surroundings. Just as importantly (although this part can be harder to implement and is more often forgotten), decide which notes can take a back seat and make them notably softer than their surroundings. Bringing this level of light and shade to your music will create a really expressive and interesting sound.
To hear these layers in action, pick a song or piece of music that you think sounds expressive. As you listen for the first time, try to note down the first broad layer of dynamics. How would you describe the average volume level of each section? You can use traditional Western classical dynamic markings (f, p, etc.), the voice levels, a scale from one to ten, or any system you like.
Then listen again, but focus on phrasing, the second layer. Can you hear where the peak of each phrase is? Is there a noticeable swell, and if so, is it subtle or dramatic? Is one line in a section louder or more intense than the others?
Finally, listen a third time for the foreground layer. In each phrase, do you notice when certain individual notes stand out from the texture? Can you hear others that are weaker than those around them?
Try this technique for yourself with a piece that you can play fairly confidently. Record yourself playing it as you usually would (you might find that you’re already using some of these dynamic layers instinctively, or because you’ve worked on them previously); then, go through the layers one by one as described above and decide how to use them in your piece of music. Record yourself again. Can you hear where you’ve made changes? What’s the difference in the overall effect?
For a section of your piece:
Background: the whole section might be marked as mp (inside voice level).
Middle ground: each of the four phrases in the section have their own peak, which can be marked out with hairpins or your preferred markings. In the whole section, the third phrase will be the loudest.
Foreground: in the first phrase, the third note E and the fifth note G# might be the loudest. The first and fourth notes might be the softest ‘ghost notes’. Etc.
I really like this way of thinking about dynamics and I hope you do too. Have you got any different methods for working dynamic contrasts into the music you’re playing?