The Power of Pianissimo
When I was in high school, class could sometimes get out of hand. There was one Monday we had a physics class and everyone were more interested in talking to each other about the weekend than learning physics.
As the lecture was about to start, the teacher arrived and sat down by his desk. Nobody seemed to pay him any mind. Or at least we tried not to. Thinking we were in the clear, we continued the conversations. If we talked for a long time, maybe we could cut some time off the lecture?
Suddenly however, the room fell quiet. Heads turned toward the front of the classroom. Our teacher had started whispering to one of the students on the front row, and now, as if spellbound, everyone's heads were turned toward him – eyes and ears on alert, intently focused on catching his words.
Today we'll talk about what the softer parts of the dynamic spectrum can do for your music.
Dynamics as Character
Despite what Wikipedia and maybe even common sense would suggest, dynamics are not volume, but character.
Playing softer or stronger changes both the timbre of the sound and the way the musician engages with their instrument drastically. Therefore, dynamics are more complex than they at first may seem.
Changing dynamics means changing timbre, volume and resulting character all at the same time. In other words, dynamics is about the musical meaning of the part that is played.
The Common Dynamics
Let's take a look at the most common musical dynamics:
Keeping in mind that dynamics are more than volume, piano is not just «quiet», it's soft.
It can be intimate, like when you turn around during class to tell your friend a story from the weekend without attracting the teacher's attention, or a pair of lovers whispering secrets to each other on the bus.
It can also be a socially anxious person pulling away from a group to protect themself or a guilt-ridden person admitting to a mistake.
Similarily, forte is not just «loud», it's strong. And it requires physical force to play.
It's a person standing on top of a mountain, proclaiming their love for the whole world to hear. Can you imagine the strained raspiness in their voice? It can also be an aggressor coming toward you with an intent of violence, or a lament for the loss of a loved one.
As we can see, to cover the whole range of human experience in our music, we need to make use of both ends of the dynamics spectrum.
The Power of Pianissimo
To see what qualities softness can add to your music, let's listen to this song from the Atelier Rorona Arrange Tracks album. The music withdraws into an incredibly soft dynamic to reveal a sudden clearing in the forest at 1:25:
The softness allows the listener drop their guard, be vulnerable and sensitive, to take in the hi-fi soundscape and listen in a completely different way than is possible with loud music. The softness invites the listener to listen into the music.
It's funny how the quietest moment in the song is also the climax, as if it was hiding some wonderful secret that it wanted to show you all along.
On the topic of letting your guard down, let's listen to this snippet of Leoš Janáček's 2nd string quartet starting at 4:32:
Notice how Janáček asks the strings to play extremely softly. The audience feels compelled and is slowly drawn in, as if trying to make out the words of a conversation behind a locked door.
When Janáček has pulled them all the way to the very edge of their seats, he suddenly changes the dynamics to a gnarly forte fortissimo that blasts them away.
The hot and cold personality of neurotic person.
(I was present at this very concert, so it's a true story!)
For softness to feel soft, it has to be contrasted by something strong. A pillow will feel softer if you've been sleeping on a concrete floor for weeks. Similarily, strength won't feel strong unless contrasted by something soft. The interplay between softness and strength is therefore key.
A great way to start experimenting with dynamics is to use terraced dynamics. This expression usually describes the dynamics encountered in baroque music, referring to how the harpsichord could mechanically only play loud and quiet with no nuances in-between.
While there are tricks composers used to get around this problem, it also sets a limitation with some incredible possibilities for a composer to grow under. Instead of trying to work against the limitation, why not work with it?
If you can only choose between soft and strong, it makes figuring out the dynamics of your passages and phrases much easier. It will develop your sensitivity to the balance between softness and strength without overwhelming you with possibilities.
So if you had to choose, would you rather the different parts of your music be soft, or strong? Forcing yourself to choose between extremes will make your musical intentions clearer – for the audience, but also for yourself.