Loud Or Soft: How Important are Dynamics in Music

How loud can you play? Ok how soft can you play? How important are dynamics in music? Are you stuck in the middle? Any one of the three alone can be boring or monotonous, unless you want to play wallpaper music in a restaurant. The softest you can play, in theory is “zero”. The only way is up. How loud you can play in theory is limitless.

There are many elements in music and the option of varying soft to loud is one of them. Soft dynamics can establish a peaceful or calm mood, or even a mysterious feeling, or change to a loud dynamic and obtain proud, forceful, exciting, or majestic feelings. A great example is Joseph Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. There are 16 measures that could put you to sleep, followed by a very loud chord to wake you up. Dynamics at work!

Probably saxophones and clarinets can have the most dynamic variations. Brass instruments tend to lean toward loud and forceful. That is why we have brass bands in parades and bugles in past history leading the charge in mounted cavalries. I don’t think violins would have cut the mustard in either situation.

That being said, beginners sometimes don’t take enough reed and mouthpiece in their mouths so guess what. They will play softly, but as soon as they blow harder the reed chokes off and no sound is produced at all. “Not good!” While soft is important, the players that can only play softly sound shy, timid, and insecure.

Then there are those that take too much reed and mouthpiece in their mouth and, oh yes, sound loud. The end result for beginners is horrendous and honking instead they should be full sounding, confident, and aggressive (which is a compliment). Also accompanying the honking is terrible intonation. when this happens you are actually at the mercy of your instrument. No instrument plays in or out of tune, IT’S THE PLAYER! Quite a dilemma.

Now that I have established the problem, what is the solution?

I originally posed the question how softly can you play. Let’s think about it. If you have a soft reed, and blow lightly, and your instrument responds properly, you probably can sound extremely soft. So your dynamic range will be extremely soft, pianississimo to……..soft (or piano). In some settings that might be acceptable but very limited. I know when I play, I want to be heard! When I play a bad note, EVERYBODY knows who the guilty party is, though rarely in recent years.

To increase your dynamic range from too soft is take a little more reed in your mouth so your bottom lip crosses the heart of the reed. You might call this the “Goldie Locks Zone” Not too much, not too little, but just right. I personally call this the ”sweet spot” on the reed. Remember, keep your chin down and you will have increased your dynamic range sufficiently. As long as your chin is down you will also have the ability to control the pitch of each note if needed. When you drop your chin in the sweet spot, you will automatically play louder because the reed will vibrate more freely. To play softly, use less air. For louder use more air. Since your chin is down pitch control will be easy. Remember, if you can you will.

Performing with a wide range of dynamics will be more fun for you AND your listeners.