CHAPTER 6: DYNAMICS, TIMBRE, AND FORM
Dr. N. Boumpani
Much of the popular music we hear day to day has been engineered to be heard on radios, in cars, or on personal listening devices. The volume of the music has been compressed into a narrow range between the loudest point in the music and the softest. “Classical” style music is recorded at the dynamic level as it was performed with the levels of loud and soft based on what the composer has indicated. When you listen to some of the music within this course, you will notice that it sometimes gets very soft and then gets louder, either very suddenly, or little by little.
When we discuss the loudness or softness of a piece of music, we are discussing the dynamics. A common mistake is made when someone uses the terms “high and low” to discuss dynamics. If you remember from the section on melody, when we discuss the highness or lowness of a sound, we are discussing pitch. Still, if our roommate, brother, sister, or children are playing music so load that it disturbs our concentration, what do we say? We say "turn down the music!" We don't usually say "will you please decrease the level of loudness of that music!?" This is why we often use the everyday terms “high and low” when talking about dynamics. Any educated person should strive to use the proper terminology. Do you remember that we discussed how this course would focus on only the most important uses of music vocabulary that an educated person should understand? This is one of those important words! In this course, when you talk about, or write about dynamics in music, you will use the terms loud and soft.
SEEING DYNAMIC LEVELS
At certain websites, musicians often upload their music for others to hear. On some of these sites you may see a graphic representation of the music as it plays. This graphic representation may look like the one in the image below.
In the image above, where the lines are shortest (closest to center), like at the beginning, or in the middle, the music is at its softest. When the lines extend outwards from center and are longest, that is where the music is the loudest. If you look at the softest section, then the loudest section, you will notice quite a difference. When you listen to the music, you will definitely notice the difference. Record producers of popular music use devices to make the softer sections louder, and the louder sections softer, without the listener really noticing. (When we talk about timbre, this will be explained.) Below is a graphic representation of the same work of music, but put through software designed to trick our ears into believing we are hearing greater dynamic differences. The second graphic used here was engineered with a simple software application. Record producers own far more sophisticated software and hardware.
In order for musicians to perform at the dynamic levels set by the composer, they have to understand a number of symbols and terms. These are terms that you do not need to know, but they are presented here to give you some insight into understanding music.
Here are only a few of the basic terms indicating dynamic level:
pp - means pianissimo, or very soft
p - means piano, or soft
mp - means mezzo-piano, or moderately soft
mf - means mezzo-forte, or moderately loud
f - means forte, or loud
ff - means fortissimo, or very loud
Sometimes the composer wants the music to be as soft as the performer can possibly sing or play. In that situation, the composer might use the abbreviation pppp. If the composer wants the performer to play or sing as loud as possible, the composer might use the abbreviation ffff, meaning extremely loud. Musicians must learn to control how they sing or play in order to properly interpret the dynamic markings.
There are two other terms that an educated person should understand with regard to dynamics, but these terms also have extra-musical meaning. These two terms are crescendo and decrescendo. You may have heard some say something like "the applause of the crowd seemed to crescendo into an enormous thunder of appreciation at the end of the moving speech!" A crescendo occurs when there is a gradual increase in the level of loudness. The opposite of crescendo is decrescendo, which is a gradual decrease in the levels of loudness in a piece of music. Sometimes a decrescendo is called a diminuendo.
To indicate a crescendo in a piece of music, the composer may place the abbreviation “cres” under a section of the music where the crescendo is to begin. The performer knows when to stop the crescendo when the composer places a new dynamic symbol below the music. For example, if the music is marked “mf” (mezzo forte or moderately loud) at one point, followed by the abbreviation cres, and then, a short time later the composer places an “ff” (fortissimo or very loud) under the music, the performer knows how to perform the dynamic correctly. For decrescendos the abbreviation is “decres.” Another way a composer can indicate a crescendo or decrescendo is with symbols. See the symbols below.
Listen to the following file for an example of both a crescendo and decrescendo. You may also notice some changes in other elements also. As the piece gradually gets louder (a crescendo) it also gets faster and more dissonant. Right before the end it begins to slow down before finally resolving to a consonant sound held for an 8 second decrescendo. Below the audio file listing you can see the graphic representation of the loudness.
EXAMPLE: Crescendo and Decrescendo N. Boumpani
This term is pronounced tam-burr and is sometimes called "tone color." Timbre has to do with the unique sound of a singer, instrument, or group of instruments or singers. For example, when we hear a trumpet, we recognize it because it has the timbre of a trumpet. When we hear a marching band, we can say it has the timbre of a marching band. Female and male voices have different timbres.
Do you know that your voice is as unique as your fingerprint? You may sound a little like one of your parents, or even like a brother or sister, but you will never sound exactly like them. This is why we can hear two people sing the same song, and sing all of the pitches correctly, in the correct rhythm, but we may prefer one over the other because of that unique timbre one of them possesses. A person’s voice is so unique that a “voice print” of your voice can be used in the same way as your fingerprint to identify you.
Each instrument has a unique timbre. This is why a flute does not sound like a trumpet. When instruments are grouped into families, as in the orchestra, each family has a unique timbre. As a matter of fact, combinations of instruments create unique timbres. Even within the same family of instruments different instruments have unique timbres, and even the same instrument when compared to another just like it may have a different timbre! This is why some musicians will go to dozens of music stores trying to find the “right” instrument. Even though most of us hear two trumpets and believe they sound the same, many trumpet players hear the difference in the timbres of each one. There are many variables that go into the timbre of any given instrument. For violins, the type of bow may change the timbre, and for brass instruments, the size and shape of the mouthpiece and the materials that are used in the creation of the mouthpiece and instrument all affect the timbre.
Going back to the graphics we used when we discussed dynamics, the reason our ears are fooled when a song is engineered is because of timbre. When a person sings softer, or plays an instrument softer, the timbre is different than when that same person plays or sings much louder. As a voice or instrument gets louder, the timbre makes slight changes as well. So even though the soft part of a song has been made louder through engineering, the timbre of the singer makes us believe that he or she is singing much softer.
To understand timbre a little better, we will revisit a work we heard in when we discussed the orchestra. The first two minutes of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra will demonstrate the timbres of the families of the orchestra. Remember that you will hear the music in this order:
The timbre of the entire orchestra
The timbre of the Woodwind Family
The timbre of the Brass Family
The timbre of the String Family
The timbre of the Percussion Family
The timbre of the entire orchestra.
EXAMPLE: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra B. Britten (first 2 minutes)
We tend to like music we can understand. If a composer were to write a four- or five-minute piece of music where every 30 second had a new melody, new harmony, or where rhythms continually changed, the listeners would quickly get lost. When you hear a new piece of music for the first time, and you like it, often it is because the composer wrote it in a manner that you could understand. A big part of this is based on the form of the composition. The form of a piece of music is essentially the way it is "put together.” The form is the “framework” of all music. The music you listen to each day, regardless of the style, has been composed to some kind of form.
Composers use three main devices when writing music. The first is repetition. Whether you are listening to your favorite popular musician, or a work of music by Mozart, you will notice that once a melody is presented, it is usually repeated, either right away, or later in the work. In the music of Mozart and Beethoven, melodies are often presented, then repeated immediately, or within a short time. However, if a composer were to repeat that melody four, five, six, or even twenty times in a row, the listener would soon get tired of hearing it and lose focus. The composer wants you to listen to his or her music without confusing you in the process. Think about the music you hear every day. Most popular music, including country, rock, hip-hop, etc., uses repetition to catch the listener’s ear. In the music business, this is often referred to as a “hook.” Repetition, as long as it balanced with other aspects of form, is vital to keeping the attention of the listener.
Once a melody has been established, in order to keep the listener focused, the composer can do one of two things. First, the melody can be repeated, sometime with some changes. Maybe those changes are just small additions to the melody, or the melody might be performed by different instruments or voices. There are so many ways a composer can vary music that they can’t all be discussed in a music appreciation class. This process is known as variation. A good composer uses variation in many ways.
The other way of keeping the listener's attention is contrast. After the melody is introduced, then repeated (with or without variation), introducing a new melody can make the music “fresh” and keep the listener focused. Contrast is more than just variation and a good composer knows how to write a contrasting melody without getting too far away from the original melody by using all of these three components, repetition, variation, and contrast. As we listen to music in this course, these three components will be pointed out as much as possible. As an assignment, the instructor may ask you to pick a piece of music you listen to every day and have you can identify when a section of that piece is repeated or varied, and when contrasting material is used. Even in music like hip-hop, when melody is sometimes not as important as the rhythm or the words, these three elements of composition can still be present.
We will start with a simple listening guide to help you understand the idea of form. The piece of music we will use is in A-B-A form where the B section represents the main contrast from the A section. We will revisit this piece when we discuss the Classical Age later in the book. As you listen with the guide below, notice how Mozart used repetition, variation and contrast to create this short work. At the top of the guide there is critical information regarding some of the elements of music we discussed earlier, including meter and tempo.
EXAMPLE: Minuet No. 1 from 12 Minuets, K.568 W. A. Mozart
12 MINUETS K. 568 – MINUET 1 IN C MAJOR
FOCUS: Themes within the A-B-A form
Meter: triple meter
|0:00||A SECTION theme a|
|0:13||Theme a repeated||Repeated exactly|
|0:24||Theme b||B theme begins softly then ends loud (slight contrast)|
|0:35||Theme b||Repeated exactly|
|0:47||B SECTION theme c||CONTRASTING SECTION|
|0:59||Theme c repeats||Repeated exactly|
|1:10||Theme d||The second phrase of the d theme is the same as the second phrase of the c theme. variation|
|1:23||Theme d repeats||Repeated exactly|
|1:34||A SECTION theme a||Although the a theme does not repeat here, the second A section is a repeat of the first|
|1:45||Theme b||No repeat|
You may have noticed that there were repeated melodies within each section. We can break down this piece even further by explaining these melodies (we will call them themes). The general form, as outlined above, demonstrate repetition and contrast. When the A section returns at 1:34, we see how Mozart used repetition. When section B begins, we hear new themes, a softer dynamic that stays fairly steady throughout, and fewer instruments. In this way Mozart demonstrates contrast. By breaking this piece down a little further, we can see how Mozart used these elements of form in more ways than outlined above. Again, this will be further discussed in the chapter on the Classical Era.
For an assignment, your instructor may ask you to take a piece of music you listen to and break down the form. If it is popular music, you might find there is no dynamic contrast, but that is the nature of popular music, so look for other types of repetition, contrast and variation. In some songs, the variation can be a section of music where the music is the same, but the words have changed. This exercise should demonstrate that although music has changed over time, the rules that govern music stay the same.
When we discuss the loudness or softness of music, we are discussing the dynamics of the music. Dynamics are usually indicated by abbreviations of Italian terms placed in the music. When a composer wants the music to get louder gradually, the composer uses either a sign that indicates a crescendo, or places the abbreviation “cresc” below a section of music. If the composer wants the music to decrescendo, meaning to get softer gradually, either a symbol is used, or the abbreviation “decres” is placed under a section of the music.
The word timbre is used to describe the specific and unique sound of a voice or instrument. The words “tone color” are often used in place of timbre. The three elements of form are repetition, variation and contrast. Composers use these three elements to create music that listeners can understand and enjoy.