Dynamics: Raising Ceilings and Lowering Floors

Most players share a similar approach when it comes to controlling dynamics. We use our main sound eighty percent of the time, turn off a pedal or turn down our volume knob “for the really quiet parts,” and have some form of boost for leads and solos. Many of us claim to be “obsessed with dynamics,” but that rarely seems to manifest itself in something other than a fear of compression in overdrives pedals and weird, cultish followings of certain players for their “touch.” 

Obviously, control over dynamics is incredibly important for the communicative, narrative aspects of musical performance, but too often, it gets limited in practice to arbitrary jumps, or simply “being louder sometimes.” 

In reality, dynamics is less about sheer volume, and more about the disparity between our most and least intense sounds. That means we need to be as comfortable with the quiet, subdued side of our playing as we are with intensity and loudness, to make sure each contrast can be as stark as possible. 

In practice, like so many other aspects of our playing, dynamics come down to planning. Personally, I’ve been known to chart out the dynamics of songs in weird pseudo-Excel graphs, but following this simple checklist should do the same trick for less: 

  1. Try your best to select one section of every song to be completely silent. This is actually the ultimate dynamic move, since no sound is ever louder than silence (very deep). 
  2. Plan ahead to unleash your most intense sound only at the most intense moments, and be as protective of that sound as possible. Your most intense sound is like The Boy Who Cried “Wolf.” Use it too often, and the audience stops caring. 
  3. Work those crescendos and decrescendos like it’s your job. Know where they are, and make them count. 
  4. Know how each section relates to the others dynamically. Is the chorus more intense than the pre-chorus? Is the bridge the most intense part of all? Make sure your own dynamics reflect the flow of the song. 

Dynamics is about getting louder when we need to, sure, but it’s also about getting quieter, and collecting shades of mezzo like some sort of musical Pokemon Master. We need to lower the floor as much as we need to raise the ceiling, all in the name of making our music say what we mean.