Becoming A More Musical Performer- Part 1

Dynamics vs. Intensity

Have you ever wondered why some musicians are more interesting to listen to than others? Have you wanted to learn the secret to true musical expression? Both of these questions should be asked from time to time as we practice our art. Playing music and playing music in a musical style can be miles apart and while pondering this issue, I decided to focus on just one aspect of musical playing- dynamics.

Playing with dynamics adds a greater depth to any musician’s performance. Performing a solo without dynamics is like eating a good steak without any seasoning. It still is a steak but without seasoning, it is not a good steak. Playing with dynamics is similar to eating a well seasoned steak. You may question as to why I’m so interested in dynamics. The execution of the correctly indicated dynamic is only the composer’s suggestion as to how loud or soft you are to play his/her music. Amateur musicians play the written dynamics and true artists play in between the suggested dynamics. To make myself more clear to younger or even less musical players, I will use the following example, Oh Come All Ye Faithfull.

Download exercise material here Dynamic vs Intensity exercise

Notice in the top line, I have indicated the most common use of written dynamics in this piece. This is the suggested level of loudness and softness for this number. The less musical players would be happy to perform these changes as indicated but to a true musical artist, these are only guidelines and to them, just the beginning. I have indicated fifteen dynamic changes in the upper line which is good. But to perform this number in a true musical style, you will need to add hundreds of subtle changes in order to make it sound musical. The difference I am speaking of is the difference between dynamics and intensity.

What is the difference between Dynamics and Intensity?

Dynamics indicate how loud or soft we are to play a passage. Intensity is the degree of importance we place on each and every note of that passage. Two notes can be played with the same dynamic and that is good. If you think of the first note as a pick up note to the second, then you slightly stress the second note more than the first. The reason for that change is that you want the second note to be more important than the first and this is what I am speaking of when I explain the difference between dynamics and intensity. Dynamics are general indications of changes in loudness and softness and intensity is the artistic side of dynamics.

On the exercise sheet that you have downloaded, the top line has the dynamics added and on the bottom line I have indicated numbers above each note. The top line indicates the general dynamics and the lower line indicates the suggested intensity of every note. Your dynamic scale includes p, mp, mf, f, ff. Your intensity scale includes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. We have already doubled the number of changes in our dynamic offerings. Dynamic indications will affect all the notes in a single phrase but every note in the same phrase will have a number of intensity added to it which means a phrase of twelve notes might have the same dynamic but that same phase could have twelve changes. When you think back to the most musical performance you can remember, which scale do you think the artist was using, i.e. dynamics or intensity?

Suggestions on how to use your exercise sheet.

The top staff on your sheet represents what the composer has suggested for dynamics and the numbers above each note on the lower staff represents the intensity I would suggest for the same melody. Follow the suggestions below and strive for perfection in your observance of these numbers. The number 1 is the least intense and the number 10 is the most intense. Remember to observe the numbers as units of intensity not dynamic levels.

  • Set your metronome (if you don’t own one, get one) for mm 60. There is a reason that you will be playing your piece that slow, trust me.
  • Begin your piece at forte level but after your first note, you should be reading the numbers, not the dynamic levels.
  • As the numbers get large, so will your intensity. As they diminish, so will your intensity.
  • The amount of change between each consecutive number will be so slight; it is almost like you are thinking a change rather than an obvious change. Great musical performances are constructed on the less obvious and the non musical performances are based on the obvious changes.
  • As you progress from one note to the next, feel the change but don’t force the change.
  • Play through this exercise sheet once each day for a week and each day continue to think the change in intensity and slowly begin to lessen the amount of change. Strive to make your intensity less obvious to your listener while at the same time keeping it obvious to your self.

The next post will cover the use of slight tempo change to improve your musical playing ability.

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.