How to Master Guitar Dynamics

No one intends to bore their audience with lifeless songs. But without learning how to funnel emotion into your music, you might do just that. Or even worse, you might play at a level 10 all the time like many contemporary artists, providing little change and seldom connecting with your listeners. Dynamics offer a tool to make music emotive. Even if you’re just picking up guitar for the first time, you should learn how to funnel feelings into a song. And dynamics are the secret ingredient.

As your relationship to music deepens, playing songs in an emotive way becomes intuitive. In the same way that personalities are often described as “dynamic”, your aim is to create an animated story through sound. If you don’t want your music to sound like a non carbonated soda, it’s important to discover dynamics. The analytical side of phrasing your songs offers an additional outlet into self-expression. But what are dynamics anyways?

What are dynamics?

As they relate to music, dynamics are the volume variance by note, phrase or song. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes dynamics as:

/Dynamics/

dy.nam.ics

  1. A pattern of process of change, growth or activity
  2. variation and contrast in force or intensity (as in music)

Controlled by the strum hand, volume is the key to musical expression. If you play a note with emphasis, does it sound like anger? If you play softly, are you expressing a tenderness? Every song has its own natural arch.

Imagine it this way: while you’re telling a story, your voice changes pitch and volume to emphasize certain parts of the story. You might dip down low to build suspense. Or you could climb to a higher note to express your enthusiasm. In the same way that tone, pitch and volume change during speech, music involves growth and continuous change. If you’re hoping to connect with your listeners, it’s essential to convey your relationship to music. And exploring dynamics offer the best outlet.

Exercise for Practice:

Listen to Eye of the Tiger and see if you can hear the natural progression of the song. How does Survivor get us emotionally invested in the song?

  •     At which points is the volume escalating?
  •     When does it drop back down to a soft volume?
  •     What do you feel during the chorus?
  •     How is volume used to connect you to the song?
  •     What makes the Eye of the Tiger so intense? How did Survivor capture the intensity?

You can apply this practice to any song. Pick a few of your favorites and listen to the natural arch of the melody. This will give you clues about how dynamics relate to emotional expression. Do sad songs come across as loud? Does your running playlist use volume to get you amped up? Listen to the changes to determine how other artists use dynamics to get you emotionally invested.

Applying Dynamics to Guitar

While we’re learning a song, our main intent is to figure out how to express a fluid story. Determining how that story changes throughout the measure (and ultimately the song) helps you to move the song forward. By piecing together smaller phrases, you’ll end up building an incredibly varied and dynamic song. So how do you adjust the volume on your guitar? Where do you begin while learning how to apply dynamic expression?

The following methods offer some insight into applying dynamics. By exploring these practices, you’ll be able to adjust both the volume and the tone of your guitar, giving you the tools to build your dynamics.

  •     Mute the strings: Using your strumming hand, you can softly place your hand against the strings to reduce or eliminate sound. This strategy will help you accomplish a gentle strum more easily.
  •     Picking: If you’re looking to establish a bit more volume but not turn into AC/DC, you can use finger picking to emphasize specific notes without dominating the song.
  •     Aggressive picking or strumming: This is how you can let it all out. Strum or pick with full force, using music to express your point.

Self-Expression Through Dynamics

Experimenting with volume can add emotion to your performance. You can tell the difference between enthusiastic musicians and those who play out of obligation based off of the emotion. But dynamics require an arch, meaning that you typically build or reduce volume rather than switch back and forth between extremes without warning.

If you were to break out into a guitar solo right at the beginning of a song, there’s a good chance that none of your listeners would be emotionally invested in the music. Guitar solos tend to happen late in the song because you’ve already had the chance to win your audience over through the growth of the song.

Exercises for Practice:

Play a chord or a few sections of a song with varying levels of volume.

  •     Does playing it loud give you a certain feeling? Like anger?
  •     What happens if you strum gently?
  •     Can you build or unbuild a song by switching between loud and soft volumes?

Built in Dynamics in Music

Generally speaking, music has a variety of dynamics that are built in right from the start. While many artists are intuitive in their musical expression, others require analysis to find the best way to express themselves.

High Notes:

High notes carry much further without applying a lot of effort, which makes them loud all on their own. As the notes in your song rise in pitch, typically you’ll decrease the volume (or “decrescendo”) in order to manage the build. And you’ll just accent the highest point – not the entirety of the build.

  •     /Decrescendo/ adverb or adjective
  1. a gradual decrease in volume of a musical passage
  2. a decrescendo musical passage

Low Notes:

While you’re exploring the low notes of your piece, a “crescendo” generally takes place. This is where you’ll begin to build volume. Low notes don’t carry in volume as well as high notes, giving you more room to build the volume.

  •     /Crescendo/ adverb or adjective
  1. a: a gradual increase

b: the peak of a gradual increase : CLIMAX

  1. a crescendo musical passage

Repeated Notes:

Finally, if your music has a number or repeated notes in a now, you’re generally exploring a crescendo. For whatever reason, the songwriter intended this portion of the song to have a bit of pizzaz. It’s an important part of the story, which makes a build essential. And it helps you captivate your listeners. So, you’ll start the phrase with soft dynamics, eventually reaching loud, enthusiastic volumes.

Exercises for Practice:

  •     Take a look at the following picture of sheet music. Where do the notes start to climb in pitch? How would you expect the volume of those notes to change as they climb?
  •     Where do the notes start to dip down low? What might happen to the volume in those cases?
  •     Are there repeated notes anywhere? If so, how would you expect the dynamics might change through the repeated notes?
  •     Is there anywhere in the music where you might disagree with the written dynamics?

Understanding Written Dynamics

While reading sheet music, you might notice little letters in the margins. Sheet music uses Italian terms to assist with the phrasing of a song. The “f” means “forte” (or loud). While the “p” means “piano” (or soft).

If you add an “m” before “f” or “p”, it indicates moderately. You’re not going to play “f” or “p” at full force. And doubling those symbols emphasizes their meaning. For example, “Ff” means “very loud” and “Pp” means “very soft”.

List of Dynamics

  • fff —- louder than ff
  • ff —– fortissimo —— louder than f
  • f —— forte ————– loudly
  • mfmezzo-forte —— moderately loud
  • mpmezzo-piano —– moderately soft
  • p —– piano ————– softly
  • pppianissimo —— softer than p
  • ppp – softer than pp

You can think of these dynamics as quiet, medium, and loud. Quiet would be piano. Medium would be mezzo piano or mezzo forte, and loud would be forte. And then there are shades between those extremes as well (really loud, or really soft).

Exercise for Practice

  •       Try playing a single note over and over. How do you build the volume? And decrease it?
  •       What is you apply these Italian expressions to your note? What would pp (pianissimo) sound like? And fff (fortissimo)?
  •       Imagine a crashing wave. The crash is powerful because there’s a crescendo that takes place before the white cap curls. How can you mimic that build in music?

Analyzing Dynamics

Applying dynamics takes thought and analysis. The above image gives you clues to the growth and change of a song. But you have to fill in the blanks. In measure one, the songwriter suggests that you start with “piano” or a soft volume. But by measure four, “forte” or loud is the aim. Rather than jumping immediately from soft to loud, there’s an arch that’s likely supposed to occur between measures one and four.

Occasionally, a songwriter wants you to suddenly emphasize a certain volume. The above picture indicates “sf” several times in a row. “Sf” means “subito forte”, which indicates that the performer should suddenly play loudly. The songwriter intends for those phrases to take listeners by surprise. And the emphasis helps to accomplish that feat.

Exercise for Practice

Take a look at the rest of the sheet music.

  •     Where might you slowly increase or decrease the volume?
  •     What happens if you change the suggested to dynamics?
  •     Do you like the mood of the piece more or less after practicing with volume changes?

Advance Phrasing

As you become more comfortable with reading music, you’ll learn that every song consists of phrases. And each of those phrases has a natural build. Whether your music includes Italian tips or not, soon you’ll be able to tap into your intuition and figure out where a song builds entirely on your own. While you’re getting started with your guitar, being aware and watching how songs build can help you connect with your audience on a more extreme level.

Applying music theory is always my least favorite part about learning a song. It’s tedious, takes a lot of attention and a kind of rigidity that I often fight. But, truthfully, if you bite the bullet right from the start, future songs will become easier to learn in an expressive way. So, the earlier you start to apply dynamics to your music, the easier you’ll make it for yourself down the line. Plus, exposure to dynamics helps you see nuance and variance where you might’ve missed it before.

Final Tips and Tricks

I feel the need to point out that written dynamics provide a general guideline. The songwriter includes a window into their thoughts, offering suggestions revolving around the flow of the song. While the guidelines are a terrific resource that can be used, they don’t have to be strictly followed.

You might find that building the song in a different way expresses something that the songwriter missed. Take the music theory portion of your practice and play around with the options. What happens if you follow the written dynamics? And if you change them?

Do you find that you’re eliciting a certain emotional response by choosing to construct or deconstruct the volume at various parts of the song? Analyzing dynamics can be really fun and explorative.

Additionally, some musicians play dynamic music naturally. Without analyzing the phrases and categorizing all of the measures, it’s possible to play in an emotive way. Emotion is often intuitive for music lovers. You pour your heart into the fret board and end up with a powerful performance because you inherently understand the flow of sound.

But if you’re someone who likes a bit of structure and you want to take your art to the next level, consider analyzing dynamics. Dynamics offer a window into the soul. By building and unbuilding the emotion, you’ll find ways to connect with your listeners that inexpressive musicians won’t find. Ultimately, the secret ingredient to a phenomenal performance rests in dynamics.

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