Local vs. big-picture dynamics

"Musican" by davekellam is licensed under CC BY-NC

An important part of interpreting music is figuring out how to use dynamic markings. They aren’t as simple as just playing louder or softer.

It helps a lot to understand the difference between what I call local dynamics and big-picture dynamics. Unfortunately, they are marked in sheet music using the same symbols, so it’s not always immediately obvious which they are. When you study a new repertoire piece, ask yourself why the composer or editor has provided each dynamic marking:

Is it there to call attention to a major event in the music, like a new theme, a return to an old theme, or some other kind of climactic moment? If so, it’s a big-picture dynamic. In many cases there is some other evidence that this is an important moment: a double-bar, a fermata, a key or tempo change, an entrance after some rests, etc. (If you have studied musical form, you probably have some more ideas of what to look for.)

Or, is the dynamic marking there just to provide some shape and direction to a phrase? There’s no major musical event, just a hint about the momentary musical gesture. If so, it’s a local dynamic.

When you think in terms of local vs. big-picture dynamics, it’s clear that not all fortes or mezzo-pianos or crescendos are equal. If the composer uses dynamics to contrast two themes or sections, for example with one being soft and the other being loud, that probably calls for a dramatic change. (It may also hint that some other unwritten contrasts are appropriate, like nuances of tempo, articulation, or tone color.) But a one-measure decrescendo from forte to piano in the middle of a theme might be more of a suggestion from the composer about what direction that phrase should take, and should be handled with more subtlety.

Beware of the limitations of dynamic markings in music notation, and of careless editing, and use your best-informed musical judgment to interpret the meanings of those symbols.

Decrescendo to zero

"Volume" by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero.

There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.

Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).

As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.

When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.

Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.

Woodwind dynamics and the embouchure

There’s a lot of confusion about how different dynamic levels are produced on woodwind instruments. How do you think it’s done?

If you said something like “use more or less air,” you are on the right track, kind of. But how do you put more or less air into the instrument?

If you said something like “blow harder or softer,” you are asking for trouble. Adjusting volume by increasing and decreasing breath support causes all kinds of nasty problems, especially sluggish response, unfocused tone, and saggy pitch at softer dynamic levels.


So what method is left to adjust the volume of air entering the instrument, and the corresponding loudness or softness (weirdly, also called “volume”)? Surprise, it’s your embouchure. Take a look in the mirror at your flute aperture, or look at the opening in your oboe or bassoon reed, or the opening between the tip of your clarinet or saxophone reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. By manipulating the size of this opening, you can control the volume of air passing into the instrument, while keeping your breath support powerful and steady.

The opening isn’t large to begin with, so bear in mind that the adjustments needed are incredibly small. But your lip muscles are well-suited to very small, subtle, expressive movements—certainly more so than your larger breath support muscles.

If you are an advanced player, you are probably doing this already, maybe without realizing it. But if you are struggling with dynamics-related problems, like unstable pitch during crescendos and diminuendos, or the inability to maintain tone at pianissimo, you might want to reexamine your technique.

Try this: play a note in a comfortable range at an easy mezzo-forte, with powerful breath support. Without letting up on the breath support, apply just the slightest squeeze with your embouchure. (For me, the sensation is that my lips don’t really even move, they just firm up a little.) Gradually increase the squeeze—don’t forget to keep the support strong—and see what happens.

Try it again, this time starting with the lips squeezing, and see what happens as you allow the embouchure to become more and more relaxed. This maxes out when the reed is almost completely free to vibrate at its widest amplitude, or when the flute aperture gets too large to maintain focus in the tone. (At this point you may be able to get more volume by straining harder with your breath support muscles, but notice what happens to your pitch and/or tone!)

Like so much of woodwind playing, the real key here is breath support. If you remember to keep it steady, then creating dynamic changes from the embouchure is really quite intuitive and produces much better results.

Incidentally, this is why recorders, pennywhistles, and other “fipple” flutes really have only one dynamic level; the opening can’t be manipulated effectively because it is rigid. Blowing harder or softer does change the volume but at unacceptable cost to intonation. (This is probably a major reason the transverse flute essentially replaced the recorder in Western music—it could play with dynamic contrast.)

Playing full-spectrum music

I’m far from being a photography expert, but I do have one trick. (This is a music-related post, I promise.)

In general, good photos take advantage of the eye’s full light-to-dark range. In other words, the very darkest part of the photo should be very black, and the very lightest part should be very white.

Here’s a photo that doesn’t meet those criteria—the darkest and lightest parts of the photo are both sort of medium-grayish.


But a quick “auto-level” procedure in photo-editing software (like the free Gimp) corrects this by adjusting each pixel of the photo, basically making the dark ones darker and the light ones lighter: Continue reading “Playing full-spectrum music”