Would you like to be more creative when it comes to writing music? Are you tired of spending hours writing a song only to lose interest and give up because it doesn't sound quite right? Wish you knew how the pros write highly expressive music that you can really relate to? It's no secret that becoming a great songwriter and developing musical expression requires a lot of practice and commitment. Every musician faces the challenge of not being able to accurately express their ideas before they finally start writing songs that sound how they want them to. In fact, it will take several years before many of these musicians can write songs in a highly creative and expressive manner.
That said, you can seriously cut down the time it takes you to master musical expression and write great songs by avoiding a common mistake made by most songwriters: Overlooking or under-utilizing important songwriting elements. In this article, I am going to discuss one of the songwriting elements that is most frequently overlooked (often causing songs to sound dull and uninspiring). This important songwriting element is "Dynamics."
WARNING: If you read the last sentence and thought to yourself: "Dynamics? I already know what that is... writing music loud and soft. Tell me something I don't know!" ... You have already made the same mistake that most songwriters make! So many musicians approach songwriting by trying to come up with new chords, melodies or rhythms and totally "ignore" dynamics. This is very unfortunate because by ignoring dynamics, you are ignoring one of the most useful elements for expressing yourself in music. Before I begin discussing this element in depth, I'd like you to understand how learning more about it will be beneficial to your songwriting. Here are 3 things that will happen when you learn to creatively use dynamics in your music:
1. You will be able to make everything you write sound better without even changing a single note.
2. You will have the power to quickly change how "tense" or "relaxed" the parts of your songs feel
3. You will add a new level to your songs that was previously unavailable just like watching a three dimensional version of a movie.
The Fundamentals Of Musical Dynamics
When it comes to dynamics most people understand this to describe the general volume level of a song. However, dynamics refers to both overall volume of the music as well as the individual parts that make up the music as a whole. Whenever you read a piece of music, you will see various letters that are used to display the dynamics. These have been developed and changed over a span of centuries until arriving at the letters we have today. Here are a few examples:
How To Use Dynamics In Music Tip#1: Enhancing Musical Expression Through Contrast
One of the strongest ways to keep the attention of your listeners is using contrasting dynamics. For instance, a common example of this can be observed in most pop/rock ballad songs: Usually, the song will begin with soft acoustic guitar/vocal parts and no percussion. Once the song has made it through the first chorus, the drums come in to add contrast to the dynamic range of the music as a whole. To add even more contrast to the song, there may also be a louder solo section that uses distorted guitar that plays in a higher pitch register. Then after solo/break section has ended, the softer parts take the foreground in the music again to make the contrast stand out. This approach of contrasting louder and softer dynamic levels is great for emphasizing entire song sections to make the stand out from one another. To hear a perfect example of this type of song, listen to "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica.
How To Use Dynamics In Music Tip#2: Giving More Life To A Melody
By using dynamics to emphasize specific notes within a melody, you can add a lot of extra interest to specific parts within a song. For instance, while writing a new melody, begin the melody using softer dynamics and gradually build the volume of the part until it becomes much louder. This gradual build of volume is commonly referred to as a crescendo (the opposite being a decrescendo). Another way to add interest to your melodies and make different notes pop out is to focus specifically on one or two notes and give them contrast by playing them louder or softer than the other notes of the melody. This is especially useful when you need to repeat the same musical idea several times. By using this approach, you can express yourself differently in your music without even altering a single pitch.
How To Use Dynamics In Music Tip#3: Surprise Your Listener With Silence
One of the most creative ways to enhance the effect of dynamics in your songs is to use "silence" as a tool for creating musical tension and getting the listener's attention. To illustrate this, think about a time when you were listening to loud music in your car when all of a sudden your friend in the passenger seat presses pause on the stereo. Most likely, you would immediately think to yourself something like "Hey, what's going on?!" This exact reaction came be recreated when you use silence in your music to catch the listener off guard and "force" them to concentrate on the music. To do this, take a part for a song that you have already written and replace various notes with silence. You will find that by doing this you alter the feel of the rhythm and (for longer periods of silence) build up a sense of anticipation. However, also note that silence can easily be overused, so do not overwhelm your listeners or the feeling of surprise that they feel will quickly wear off.
Hear an excellent example of the use of prolonged silence to create tension in music by listening to "Gethsemane" by Conception.
Common Situations Where Dynamics Are Effectively Used For Musical Expression
A very underestimated approach that can help you learn how to better express yourself in music is to study the scores of your favorite movies. I don't mean you need to purchase the actual score itself and read the music... but instead simply observe the way the music is arranged with different scenes throughout the film. This will help you equate the emotions expressed by the actors along with the music and build your ability to express yourself better in your songwriting. Here are some common examples:
Ex. #1: Dynamics being used to surprise the listener.
Imagine a scene with a man standing on the corner of a busy street in a large city getting ready to cross (with up tempo music played quietly in the background). The man looks up at the skyscrapers and different sites as he waits for the walk sign to turn on. The sign turns on and everyone else on the street corner begins moving toward the other side of the street. He scrambles to make it across the intersection to the other side when someone abruptly bumps into him, causing him to drop his suitcase. He drops to the ground, stuffing all the papers and documents that fell out back into his suitcase. Nervously, he looks down at his cell phone and realizes he is 15 minutes late for work. As he gets all of his belongings back in order, he raises to his feet. Suddenly he looks up as a car screeches to a sudden halt in front of him. The driver honks his horn several times. "Get out of the road!" the driver yells.
At the end of this scene, what is a good way that the music in the score could emphasize the stress of the situation? In many cases for a scene like this, you will hear the music quickly build up to end on a very loud group of notes. This feels very surprising when compared with the previous musical ideas played in the background and is very expressive of the sudden shock the character might feel.
Ex. #2: Expressing a sense of increasing or decreasing emotional intensity with dynamics
Here is type of scene from almost every romance film: The scene takes place at a train station toward the end of the film. Sitting in front of the train, there is a couple who are trying to decide if things can really work out between them (for now, the music is playing a sad, soft melody in the background). After a short discussion, they both come to the conclusion that the relationship simply cannot be sustained due to outside circumstances. "That's life," the man says to the woman, "Sometimes things just don't work out the way you want them to." The man gets on the train as it begins to board its final passengers. He takes a final look out the window at his lover and sits down at his seat to contemplate what life will be like without her. The camera cuts back to the woman, who begins to cry. It appears as if the story is going to end on a sad note as the man looks down at his feet while flashing back to "the good times" they had together. We watch as the train leaves the station. All seems lost, until suddenly the woman looks up to see the man standing at the other end of the terminal. Now, the music begins building intensity by becoming louder (crescendo). The lock eyes and begin running toward each other (music continues building louder and louder)... until they share a big embrace and passionate kiss! Now the music has reached its loudest point and climaxed, creating a perfect expression of the building tension and release of the situation.
Ex. #3: Expressing uncertainty with dynamics with silence.
For this scene, visualize a horror setting with a character walking around in the basement of a dark, abandoned mansion by himself with quiet/eerie music playing in the background. The power is out and the character needs to find the circuit breaker to turn it back on. He finds his way to the basement, opens the door and slowly makes his way down the basement steps. As he walks down the decrepit wooden steps, they creek and bend under his feet. In this moment, man senses that he is not alone. "Is anyone there?" he whispers (the music of the scene quickly escalates from quiet to very loud). The man quickly turns his head and looks behind him (music goes silent)... Nothing there. He continues down the stairs and moves his hands along the wall until he finally comes across the finds the circuit breaker. He reaches into his pocket for his lighter. Hands shaking, he fumbles to get it to light and nervously drops it to the floor. Bending down to pick it up, he hears a creek on the stairs. "Who's there?" he says, now in a frightened, demanding tone. After several seconds, the silence in the room is broken as he hears a low incomprehensible growl. The man's eyes glaze over as his adrenaline sky rockets and fear pumps through his veins. The growl gets slowly closer and closer (as the music gets louder, building tension) until suddenly a horrific scream! Then... silence.
After reading the many examples in this article, you should now have a good understanding of the role that dynamics play for musical expression. By making dynamics a main focus in your songwriting, you will be able to write music that better expresses specific ideas and emotions while adding more depth to the individual parts of your songs.
Learn how to combine dynamics with other musical elements to write better music by downloading this free songwriting eBook and using the many exercises within it to improve your skills.
About The Author:Ryan Buckner is a professional musician, guitarist and songwriter. His online songwriting lessons website contains a free songwriter mini course as well as many other instructional songwriting resources.