How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
Put simply, the dynamics refer to the volume range of any given piece of music, so the difference between the loudest and softest parts along with everything in between. Songs, albums and even entire shows can greatly benefit from enhanced dynamics, yet many bands and artists sadly pass up on the opportunity. Since they’re definitely missing out, here are eight tips that can help enhance the dynamics of your music.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

Dynamics are literally a big thing in the realm of classical music, where whispery parts are interspersed with near-deafening parts. One moment you’re listening to a lone oboe, the next you’re treated to a cacophony of kettle drums. Symphony orchestras in particular are perfect for experimenting with the limits of dynamics, which only makes the music ever more captivating. Playing music is a lot like storytelling: it’s easy to hang on to every word spoken by a born raconteur, while someone speaking monotonously is more likely to make you fall asleep. Dynamics are often overlooked when it comes to pop music – especially live-performed pop. Many bands play their tunes from start to finish without ever intentionally dropping or raising the volume once. “And that’s exactly where they’re missing out,” says bassist and composer, Bart Tarenskeen. “Changing up the dynamics is the easiest way to enrich your music, and it doesn’t even require any extra effort. All you have to do is play louder or quieter at certain times. Playing louder is easy, but it’s playing more quietly that a lot of musicians seem to struggle with.”

How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
John Mayer is a text-book example of a guitarist who injects a lot of dynamics into his sound and is definitely not afraid to play quietly.

#1 – Arranged Dynamics

Let’s dig a little deeper here. According to Bart, dynamics come in two forms: natural dynamics and arranged dynamics. “Natural dynamics adhere to the melody and any lyrics, so well-written phrases pretty much give away their own dynamics. As such, this kind of dynamic doesn’t really need to be notated because it comes naturally when you’re thinking about the music you’re playing. The only prerequisite here is that you need enough music-making experience to listen to the arrangement as a whole instead of being fixated on your own notes.” Arranged dynamics are what Bart calls “crafted dynamics, which can be plotted by the composer or worked out by the band in advance. Arranged dynamics can actually sound like the opposite of natural dynamics, especially if you’ve agreed to play loudly or quietly at the least expected moments. This is a great way to build tension or emphasise certain sections of a song. And mind you, emphasis doesn’t necessarily equal going loud. You can also highlight parts by playing them quietly to really draw your audience in. In fact, this technique is commonly used in film scores but it can just as easily be worked into pop music.”

How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
The dynamics of Björk’s music are extreme at times. They’re also arranged to bring about a bombastic effect.

#2 – Levels

Besides the distinction between natural and arranged dynamics, there’s a distinction to be made at a much smaller scale: the dynamic differences between the phrases in a song. This can refer to the dynamic discrepancies between the verse, chorus, bridge and any solos, but it can also refer to the differences in dynamics within a set, so between the individual songs. Bart: “Dynamics are essential at every level so, as a band, it’s important to think about this stuff and come up with a game plan.”

#3 – Dose It

Dynamics need to be dosed. As Bart advises: “You can’t keep going back and forth all the time. Any dynamics you add really don’t need to be taken to the extreme, meaning it’s rarely a good idea to jump from 1 to 10 and back in terms of volume. Going from 3 to 7 is already quite a leap since even just going from 5 to 6 often does the trick.” The explanation for this is simple. Bart: “Changing the volume of an instrument usually changes the timbre too, so the dynamic effect basically stacks when you lower or raise the volume of your instrument and this tweaks its timbre.

#4 – Dynamics Are Learned

So are dynamics essential in pop music? Bart believes so since almost all music needs a certain degree of fluctuation: “Sure, there are styles that completely lack any sense of dynamics, like African percussionists who play the same rhythmic patterns at the same volume level for hours on end. But that kind of music is made for its hypnotic effect. Heavy metal actually also tends to run on at a certain volume level. But pop generally cannot do without dynamics.” So what’s stopping so many pop musicians from alternating louder and quieter parts? “I think it has to do with the fact that playing dynamically is something that you have to learn. It’s an acquired skill for classically-trained musicians, but many pop musicians are autodidacts who’ve simply never been shown the way. What also doesn’t help is that every tune we listen to on the radio has been run through a compressor. Compression reduces any differences in volume, boosting quieter parts and reining in louder parts. Our ears are literally conditioned listening to compressed music. MP3s are even worse since they pack even less detail.”

How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
Symphonic rock bands like Yes (pictured) and Genesis are known for their highly dynamic music, part of which stems from the classical training the musicians have had.

#5 – Change Notes and Instruments Instead of the Volume

So how can bands make their sound more dynamic? “It all starts with a desire to want to sound different. That and listening to one another,” Bart says. “A lot of pop tunes revolve around vocals, so the vocalist typically holds the reins in terms of dynamics. As such, it’s important to discuss exactly how you’re going to play the different parts of your songs, so the verses, the choruses and the bridges.” Dynamics isn’t just about volume but can also be enhanced by adding or dropping instruments, or by playing more or fewer notes per measure. Keyboardists can often play the same chord with two, three or even eight keys. Bart points out that adding a fifth interval fattens up chords the same way as when guitarists play power-chords.

#6 – Master Your Instrument

To serve the dynamics on the whole, it’s crucial that every instrumentalist has enough control over their instrument to play quietly. This can be an issue if, for example, the bassist can only pluck the strings in one specific way. In this case, simply turning the volume down is no solution, says Bart. “Stringed instruments and bass guitars in particular demand a different touch, so try making less contact with the strings when you pluck them,” he advises. “Every instrument can be played more quietly, it’s just a matter of exploring its dynamic potential and picking out the sounds you like.”

How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
In big bands, musicians mimic the dynamics of the drummer, who in turn takes cues from the conductor.

#7 – Keep It Clear

Bart acknowledges that playing an instrument quietly does come with a risk: “That risk is sounding unclear by playing dim notes. It takes time and practice to learn to play quietly without sacrificing any clarity. The key is to not lose the pulse of each note. When I practise with my double bass, I play quietly but I still feel the pulse of every note. Since it’s tricky to get a full sound when you play quietly, low-volume practice is actually really helpful.” Loud or quiet, pulse is always important. “Someone once told me that we’re basically all drummers in a way, and I agree. Every musician must feel that inner groove.” Another risk that comes with injecting dynamics boils down to tempo changes. “Musicians tend to pick up the pace when the music is louder and vice versa. This is something to watch out for.”

How To Enhance The Dynamics Of Your Music
James Brown was one of the first musicians who would use a hand gesture to tell the band to bring the volume down to a whisper.

#8 – Do It Together

According to Bart, there’s only one way to play dynamically as a band when you’re up on stage: “Listen to each other and don’t focus too much on your own instrument. Musicians, more casual musicians especially, tend to stay zeroed in on their instrument, which makes it harder to see the bigger picture.” One solution is to come up with ways to signal each other, preferably in a flamboyant way à la James Brown. “Or better yet, in a really inconspicuous way so that your audience doesn’t notice a thing and can’t see your sudden change of dynamics coming. Adding an element of surprise is a lot of fun.

How do you practise playing dynamically as a band? “Try to play quietly first. This is often difficult enough as it is. Being able to play quietly is a basic condition to be able to play with the dynamics. Once you get the hang of it a little, you have a starting point. Next, look for the right moment to raise the volume, but make sure to be a bit clinical about it. Divide the song into verses, choruses and a bridge if it has one, then systematically see what works best by first playing the verses more quietly and the choruses a bit louder, before switching things around. Based on that, you determine what works best. If needed, you could even record yourself so that you can listen back. There are no fixed rules when it comes to enhancing dynamics. In fact, you can do anything with dynamics as long as you feel like it works.”

See Also

» Want to Play Tight? Then Nail These Exercises
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Playing Guitar Without a Plectrum: Fingerpicking

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