photo of Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma

“Only after I have become familiar with the style and character of the work can I start shaping an interpretation.”
—Yo-Yo Ma
The Musician’s Way, p. 24

On a primary level, musical interpretation conveys fluctuations in emotional intensity.

And one of the best ways to communicate changes in intensity is to vary volume.

Fundamentally, more volume equals more emotional power.

So we can set out to create an interpretation by increasing and decreasing volume to complement the gradations of intensity we perceive in a composition.

Three Ways to Shape Musical Dynamics

1. Adjust Volume in Line with Melodic Arc

When melodies ascend, they often grow in vigor; upon descent, they might repose.

As a rudimentary strategy, therefore, we can raise and lower the dynamic levels along with the melodic arc:

Music example

Ex. 1: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Sonatina for flute & guitar Op. 205, 2nd mvnt, meas. 5-8

2. Adjust Volume in Keeping with Harmonic Intensity

Musical intensity isn’t generated from melodic layout alone; harmony also plays a vital role.

For instance, as chords depart from the tonic harmony, intensity rises, so we should adjust our volume in response to harmonic energy.

In Example 2, notice how the harmonies call out for dynamic shading as they progress away from and then return to the tonic chord:

Music example

Ex. 2: J. S. Bach, Suite BWV 1007 for unaccompanied cello, meas. 1-4

3. Shape Volume According to Melody, Harmony, Meter and Text

With vocal music, the text guides the shifts in melodic and harmonic power.

In Example 3, the melody, harmony, and text align such that, as the melody and text rise and fall in intensity, the harmony moves in step; the strongest pitches also fall on strongest beats:

Music example

Ex. 3: Franz Schubert, Erlkönig D. 328 for voice and piano, meas. 93-96

What if a melody descends and the harmony becomes more potent? Harmonic intensity usually trumps melodic outline.

Even so, we should use our best judgment with any musical situation, making interpretive choices that feel honest, and then expand and contract our sound accordingly.The Musician's Way book cover

Also take into account that a piece may be structured with a single climactic peak that merits the loudest treatment, so we’ll often want to regulate our volume over the long haul so that we arrive at fortissimo only once.

Lastly, to evaluate our use of dynamics, we do well to record ourselves regularly.

Recommended personal recorders: Zoom H4N | Zoom H2n | Tascam DR-22WL

The Musician’s Way presents an inclusive approach to music interpretation and performance. Read reviews.

Related posts
7 Essentials of Artistic Interpretation
Deep Listening 
The Problems with “Notes First” Practice
Self-Recording in Practice

© 2018 Gerald Klickstein
Adapted from The Musician’s Way, pages 25-26.

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