Illustration: Filip Fröhlich
Dynamics (how loud or soft a sound is) and silence are two of the most powerful and expressive concepts in music.
Without these shifts in volume, music can sometimes feel lifeless or dull. Dynamics are a way to create moments of change and surprise that draw us into the experience of listening. Whether it’s a sense of anticipation or an emotional release, dynamics can provide structure and narrative to a piece of music and help the listener connect with and reflect on what they’re hearing.
The history and power of dynamics
In classical music, dynamics can shape how performers bring a piece of music to life in front of an audience in a way that feels organic and natural. Beginning in the Baroque era, composers would add specific notation to their musical scores that told each musician how loudly or softly to play their instruments during a particular passage.
Let’s take a look at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for example. The piece starts off with those iconic stabs which are marked ff (also known as fortissimo or “very loud”) in the sheet music, before sinking into a music softer section marked as p (for piano or “quiet”). After another set of fortissimo stabs, we have an epic crescendo passage that takes the entire orchestra from piano back up to forte and then fortissimo in a matter of seconds. Without the sonic movement created by these dynamic markings, this piece wouldn’t have nearly the same overall effect!
The role of dynamics in song structure
Jazz, rock, and other popular music in the 20th century continued to make good use of dynamics to separate different sections of the composition, as Beethoven did. For example, you might notice that the verses of a song are a bit quieter than the chorus, especially with parts like the drums and vocals. The resulting contrast can help elevate the chorus or hook as the track’s repeating “high point” and what ends up being most memorable to the listener.
These shifts in dynamics are even important for electronic music—you can totally think of the buildup before the drop in an EDM track as a kind of modern crescendo that creates tension and anticipation as it reaches maximum volume and intensity.
However, the overall effect is a bit different, in part due to a preference of loudness over dynamic range. In music recording and mixing, the dynamic range refers to the difference between the softest and the loudest parts of a piece of music. Classical music tends to naturally has a very wide dynamic range, while a lot of mainstream dance and pop music has been compressed for maximum overall loudness, and thus has a much narrower dynamic range. Even though people do love loudness, it’s often just as important to consider its polar opposite when making music—and that’s silence.
The sound of silence
How can the absence of sound be valuable, musically? The answer is the same as with dynamics—it’s all about creating contrast and understanding that the absence of any notes or sound is just as important.
With classical music notation and sheet music, silence is normally represented by “rest” markings that denote moments in which nothing is played. These strategic pauses can accomplish a lot for both a short melody or an entire piece of music. They can help clearly define different parts of a song, trigger melodic and rhythmic anticipation, or create moments of calm, often depending on what happened right before. We can revisit Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for a perfect example, in the form of the dramatic rests after each of those iconic orchestral stabs.
Music really does depend on silence in this way to help frame things and achieve a certain impact, similar to what negative space does for visual art and design. This is a driving force behind genres that rely heavily on minimalism or sparse rhythms, from dub reggae to techno and beyond—the resulting feeling of space and gradual movement is a testament to the value of silence and the creative approach of “less is more.”
We can also come to appreciate the extremes and limits of this concept—yes that’s right, John Cage’s scandalous 1952 work is literally 4 minutes of silence. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the relentless intensity of contemporary noise music.
Music has always been about sparking certain emotions or feelings in the listener, and dynamics play a huge part in making that happen. Just as dynamics are the emphasis and tone of voice used when speaking, silence is the space between words and the period at the end of a sentence. In order to really tell a story or evoke a particular feeling, you need both.
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July 13, 2022