Musical Dynamics

Daniel Stevens

Sound waves have two distinct qualities: their frequency, which determines pitch, and amplitude, which determines the intensity of the sound. Musicians typically call the intensity of the sound its dynamic, and like other elements discussed in this chapter, it is easy for musicians to take dynamics for granted. After all, many musicians have been learning to plan piano and forte since their very first lesson.

Nevertheless, dynamics are an impactful element of sounds. Sudden changes in dynamics can startle and scare, and the combination of different dynamics can create a unique sense of spatiality within a piece, even if all the parts are played by the same performers (such as in a solo piano piece). In the 20th century, composers applied serial techniques (a specific kind of musical ordering) to dynamics, such that specific sounds would be performed along a broad dynamic spectrum from ppppp to fffff. Although we may sometimes take the dynamics of a piece for granted, they are nevertheless an iconic element of some pieces. Imagine, for instance, Johannes Brahms’s Lullaby or John Williams’s Jaws motive performed at ff, or Led Zepplin’s “Black Dog” sung at a mellow mp. In fact, it is difficult to imagine almost any piece of music for which its dynamics are not an integral part of its expressive content.

Listening carefully to dynamic contrasts is critical for both performers and conductors. Performers can use dynamics to shape phrases, delineate musical sections, and create express effects (e.g., surprise, quietude, intensification). Conductors and performers alike must shape dynamic levels across multiple parts to create balance, textural clarity, and effective voicing.

In addition to the activities below, we encourage you to be mindful of dynamic usage, shaping, and contrast as you perform and listen to music, whether in solo or ensemble settings. Developing an aural awareness and expressive control with regard to dynamic range can enhance your skills as a performer and listener.

Activity: Describe the use of dynamics in the performance of a musical work.

Goal: Increase awareness of the role of dynamics in shaping music perception and interpretation.


  1. Choose a movement from the playlist below.
  2. Describe how dynamics are used by the composer and/or performer to:
    • amplify musical form
    • delineate or contrast thematic and motivic ideas
    • manipulate timbre
    • create an overall expressive contour


Activity: Manipulate dynamic relationships while performing a musical passage.

Goal: Expand and explore the dynamic range of a musical passage.

Before you start: you will need a recording device


  1. Choose a piece of music that you are currently learning.
  2. Study the dynamics on the score, but also make note of how you are already using dynamics to shape musical phrases, sections, or the piece as a whole. Also note any areas where you are using dynamics to balance musical parts within the texture, voice harmonies, and create contrast (or similarity) between sections.
  3. Create and record three unique renditions of your piece by changing the way you are using dynamics with respect to one or more elements noted in step #2.
  4. Listen to the recordings and describe the differences between each of them. List any moments that were particularly effective and note how you used dynamics to create that performance.


Activity: Describe the use of dynamics to create balance within a texture.

Goal: Increase awareness of how dynamic differences can be used to create an overall dynamic profile and textural clarity.


  1. Choose a piece from the playlist below.
  2. Describe how dynamics are used to create a composite overall dynamic and to balance different lines of the texture.
  3. Consider the following questions:
    • How does the use of dynamics create or obscure textural clarity?
    • How does the use of dynamics create a sense of space (with some instruments being closer or farther from the performer)?
    • How does the use of dynamics enable you to hear more or fewer lines at the same time?
    • In cases where multiple melodies occur simultaneously, how do the dynamic contours of each melody relate to and align with one another? For example, are the melodies all shaped in similar ways? Do the dynamic contours overlap, or are they offset in expressive ways?

Playlist notes:

  • The second movement of Charles Ives’s Piano Trio is titled TSIAJ, which stands for “This Scherzo is a Joke.” The movement quotes around fifty tunes popular in New England in the early 20th century; many of these tunes are often performed simultaneously.
  • When listening to Strauss’s Don Quixote, variation III, focus on the music that comes shortly after the 3:36 mark. At this point, Don Quixote’s loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza, is finishing giving the main character some friendly, practical advice. Don Quixote interrupts, reminding Panza that their adventures are motivated by chivalric ideals and ultimately, by the lovely Dulcinea, who sadly lives only in Don Quixote’s imagination.
  • Cantabile, by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, features contrapuntal writing that diffuses at times into sublimely radiant textures. Be sure to listen at least past the 2-min. mark.

Suggest a song for this playlist!





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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Stevens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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