The Complete Guide to Dynamics on the Piano
In today’s video we’re going to address the topic of dynamics on the piano. We’ll talk about what dynamics are, the differences in dynamics across musical eras, and some tips on how to play dynamics more effectively.
As far as I know there isn’t a “do-this-and-achieve-awesome-dynamics” lesson out there – if there is, please let me know because I want to see it. In my experience, learning to play dynamics effectively takes time and plenty of experimentation.
I tried to make this guide as helpful as possible while also acknowledging the fact that you won’t be able to then go and be a dynamic master five minutes after watching this video.
With that in mind, let’s get started!
Dynamics on the piano: Question
I really wanted to share this question that Vergil asked about dynamics, since it’s the basis of this video and likely something many of you can relate to (including myself).
“I’ve been following your videos and found them to be of great help to my progress! I’m an adult beginner who just started March this year and currently my piano teacher is gearing me towards ABRSM Grade 3. As per subject, I’m currently having a little hiccup with dynamics as I tend to play either too hard, too soft, and I frequently receive comments from my teacher about abrupt crescendos. I’m still developing my dynamic ears since I’m still new to the piano, so I combed your YouTube channel to find some pointers and tips to get some enlightenment, but alas, none could be found… Or maybe I missed it.
So I’m wondering if you could make a video focused around dynamics and how to practice dynamics? If you would, I would be eternally grateful!”
The basics of dynamics on the piano
Before we get into the “how” of playing dynamics, let’s talk about the “what”. What are dynamics?
Dynamics are symbols that represent volume. We have symbols like p which tell us to play quietly, v-shaped lines that tell us to gradually increase (or decrease) the volume, and more.
Here are the basic dynamic markings you’re going to run into:
It’s fairly uncommon to come across ppp or fff but it happens sometimes.
Here are some other dynamic markings you’ll come across:
If you are playing piano music that has a p and later an f, that’s indicating an abrupt change. You’re going from quiet to loud with little to no transition.
If you’re playing piano music that has a p followed by a crescendo and finally an f, it’s telling you that you’re going to go from quiet to loud gradually, note-by-note. Sometimes crescendos (and diminuendos) last for a measure; sometimes many measures.
So that’s the “what” of dynamics. Before we get into the nuances of playing them, I want to address how dynamics have been used in keyboard music throughout the ages. When you’re interpreting Bach and Baroque music, it’ll be different from the way you interpret Chopin and Classical music.
Dynamics throughout the ages
In the Baroque Period (1600-1750), pianos as we know them today didn’t exist. Keyboard music was typically played on the harpsichord or clavichord, neither of which had the capacity for much dynamic expression.
In Baroque music you’ll see terraced dynamics, which just means abrupt dynamic changes. You’ll go from p to mp with little transition, or even more dramatic changes like p to f.
These sudden changes in volume were what keyboard instruments were capable of doing; they weren’t able to do anything subtler. This is important to keep in mind when playing music from this time period.
In the Classical Period (1750-1825), pianos were being built and fine-tuned. Classical composers toward the beginning of the period (like Haydn) would still write for harpsichords, but composers toward the tail-end of the period (like Beethoven) wrote for the increasingly-sophisticated piano.
The damper pedals on these early pianos were very different, but dynamically became more similar to pianos of today. That’s why you’ll see much more extreme dynamic ranges in Classical piano sonatas – Beethoven especially was fond of ff or fff.
In the Romantic Period (1825-1900), pianos became what we know and love today. The piano really came into its own during this time period, which is why you had so many excellent piano players come out of this era (Liszt, Alkan, etc.).
In this era composers really started adding dynamic detail to their music. You’ll see plenty of accents, sforzandos and other “touch” markings with a wide range of dynamic contrasts and plenty of crescendos/diminuendos.
There also tends to be more detail with pedal markings, since this is when the piano had a modern-style damper pedal.
In the Modern Era (1900-), dynamic markings are as variable as the era itself. You have early 20th Century composers like Bartok who wrote hyper-specific dynamics and articulations, leaving no note behind.
You had composers like Debussy who insists on subtlety in dynamics, very different from the drama of the Romantic Era. And then the obscure modernism, and all the modern jazz, blues and pop styles beyond that.
It’s good to have a grip on what dynamic styles were popular in which eras, since that’ll give you a sense of direction when you’re applying dynamics.
For example, if you understand the Impressionist Era in piano music, it’ll help guide your interpretation of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, which I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sweeping “Romantic-style” dynamic versions of – and it just doesn’t fit.
How to play dynamics on the piano
When it comes down to it, playing dynamics on the piano is really a matter of how quickly and firmly you press down a key. Quicker and firmer means a louder note, whereas slower and softer equals a quieter note.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years of teaching is that some people tend to lean quieter, and some people naturally tend to play loudly. It’s good to know where you fall on this spectrum so you can work on your weaker area.
I, for example, tend to be a heavy-handed player. I struggle with the pianos but can blast out the fortissimos. Because of this, I really need to remind myself to hold back when I play, and to find more depth and range in the quieter registers.
One of the biggest tips I can give you on physically creating dynamics is this: project dynamics with your arms, not just your fingers.
If you use only your fingers to create force (or softness), the tone will always be a little thin. Your fortes will sound harsh and your pianos will sound weightless. I encourage you to experiment with this on the piano and see if you can notice this.
But if you play with weight from your arms, you can get a more robust dynamic tone. Your fortes will sound warm and open, and your pianos won’t disappear into thin air.
It’s one of those things you really just need to sit down and play around with, so you can begin to feel the difference.
Much of playing dynamics comes from experience and feedback. This seemingly easy task generally takes students years to “get”, so please don’t stress if you’re relatively new to the piano and struggle to convey dynamics.
For the first few years, we tend to focus on creating as much contrast as we can – it’s only in the intermediate and advanced stages that we start getting into the subtler aspects of dynamic shading.
I would start by recording yourself playing piano on a regular basis, so you can train your ear and figure out if your forte is harsh or powerful, if your piano disappears or carries across.
Work on developing these opposite dynamics first. Develop a great piano and forte. Be able to consistently play these dynamics well, and then start figuring out the nuances of mf or mp.
You can work on developing these dynamics in your pieces, but you can also practice them with your technique as well. Try playing your scales quietly and loudly – it’ll make scale practice more interesting, too.
You know how when you go see live theatre, the actors look normal from your far-away seats, but when you see them up close you notice they have pounds of makeup on their face?
Playing dynamics on the piano can kind of feel like that. We’ll play piano and in our own head think, “yes, that was definitely a big crescendo”. But anyone listening would hardly notice it. Sometimes to convey art appropriately, you need to exaggerate it more than you think.
This is something you can play around with by recording yourself play. It’s amazing what becomes clear once you step back and listen.
I encourage you to exaggerate your dynamics, which has two benefits:
- Your dynamics become more noticeable and apparent, as mentioned above, and
- Gets you comfortable playing with a wider dynamic range
Being comfortable playing with a wider dynamic range will help you learn subtlety. Because you can’t learn subtlety until you learn drama. That’s one reason why I’d never recommend attempting composers like Debussy until you’re at a more advanced stage of piano – so many piano players attempt his music before they’re capable of expressing subtle dynamics, since they haven’t mastered dramatic dynamics.
Creating a dynamic plan
Another thing that’ll help your dynamic playing is to really map out your dynamics across an entire piece. For example, say you’re learning Liszt’s Liebestraum no. 3. There are six pages in this piece, and the “crux” or “climax” of the piece is page 4.
It’s worth getting a sense of where the climactic moment of your piece is and work around it. If page 4 requires my weightiest fortissimo, then I need to make sure that I don’t waste my best fortissimo playing before this. It means any ff I come across before page 4 cannot be as loud. Otherwise this moment won’t have as much drama and energy as it needs.
In a piece like Clair de Lune, where you’re barely above an mp at its peak, you need to go through the same process – where are the peaks of the piece? And if those peaks only have an mp volume, how do I differentiate it from the p volume of the rest of the piece?
For example, you might make those mp peaks a little louder than you would in a different piece (but careful that you don’t go loud, or the piece will sound too Romantic).
If you have a dynamic plan for your piece, that should help the effectiveness of your dynamic playing overall.
Integrate dynamics even in the early stages of learning a piece
One point I always stress to my students – but that they’re most likely to ignore – is to start integrating dynamics right when you start learning a piece.
I know it seems crazy – when you start learning a piece you have to figure all the notes and rhythms, so it makes logical sense to learn the notes and rhythms first, and add dynamics and articulations later.
Here’s the reason I suggest doing dynamics right from the get-go:
The dynamics will end up “integrating” in your piece and will sound more natural. Kind of like how a stew tastes better the second day once the spices have had time to meld.
It’ll also help you avoid mechanical playing – if you focus on creating beautiful sounds right from the beginning, even when you don’t think you have the capacity to do so (you do!), your piece will be protected from ever sounding robotic. You won’t have to memorize dynamics because you’ll feel them.
Summary of playing dynamics on the piano
Here’s a summary of the most important steps on playing dynamics on the piano:
- Understand the era you’re playing, so that your dynamic choices are appropriate
- Use arm weight to create great dynamics (as opposed to just finger weight)
- Record yourself frequently so you can evaluate if your fortes are harsh or your pianos are flimsy
- Practice developing a really solid f and p before getting into anything more subtle
- Play your dynamics more dramatically than you think will sound good (especially when you’re starting out; you can always scale back later)
- Create a dynamic plan for the piece you’re learning – where’s the climax?
- Don’t put off adding dynamics to a piece. Add them right from the beginning!
Though this video isn’t a step-by-step on how to create excellent and detailed dynamics (is such a thing even possible?), I hope it gave you some ideas on how to improve your dynamic playing. Like many things in piano, it takes time, effort and a good ear.
Experiment lots, my friends, and have fun!