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7 minutes reading time (1357 words)

The dynamics of sound and time

Music is at once simple and complex. We hear it, and we are moved by the feelings the music evokes. Yet, it is also a complex matter. There are eight ingredients of music: medium (the sound), meter-tempo-rhythm (the time), melody (the tune), harmony (the chords), texture (the thickness or number of voices), form (the organization), dynamics (the volume levels), and articulation (legato, staccato, etc.), all of which work together and apart from each other to produce those "simple feelings." As musicians, it is our job to sort it out and divine how it all works, hopefully in a lifelong succession of epiphanies!

As a young piano student, I always felt overwhelmed by the number of things my teachers could come up with for me to fix. It seemed as though there were as many potential problems as there were stars in the universe! When I learned about those eight ingredients, the universe suddenly contracted into eight containable boxes. Of course, inevitably those boxes quickly started to expand as I worked with the information in them, and they also began to interrelate with one another in very special ways—somewhat like a "musically interrelated hanging mobile." You can't manipulate one piece without affecting the others! And so it is with the "nexuses," or the binding together, of beat and rhythm (time), and of melody and harmony (sound), both of which have an inner dynamic relationship. Let's look first at beat and rhythm:

The dynamics of beat and rhythm

I like to call beat the "invisible dynamic" because when we look at the score we can't see it. We see the time signature, which tells us how many beats there are in each measure, and we see the rhythm of the quarters, eighths, sixteenth notes, and such, but we can't see the beats...unless we write them in (preferably between the clefs so we don't mix them up with our fingerings!). Although they are invisible, they have an observable template of dynamics to work with. In a 4/4 measure, the first beat is usually the strongest, the third beat the next to strongest, and the fourth beat is a "spring board" to the first, leaving the second beat usually the weakest. If our beats were telephone poles, they might look like this (see Example 1) with the lines between representing the sixteenths and shorter note values connecting them.

Example 1: Telephone Pole and Skyline metric diagrams

Here is a little exercise to explore how this dynamic beat relates to the rhythm. With your left hand, tap out a few measures of the beats with the dynamic shown above. Take a tempo of 120 for the quarter note. Then, with your right hand, tap out the rhythm of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" (see Example 2).

Example 2: Old MacDonald Had a Farm rhythm.
Example 3: The Nexus of Beat and Rhythm.

Now it's "nexus" (connection) time! With your left hand, tap those dynamic beats and at the same time with your right hand tap the rhythm, letting the dynamics of the beat adjust to the rhythm, and the rhythm respond to the dynamics of the beat. Did you notice how they invigorated each other? How the fourth beat of the second measure energized the eighth-note rhythm into the third measure? Also, the soft dynamic of the second beat in measure five suggests a crescendo all the way to the first beat of measure seven. It's like, "The beat is the bones, and the rhythm is the flesh, and we flesh out the rhythm on the bones of the beat!" (See Example 3.) It's way fun, and it's a palindrome—so it's easy to remember! Yet many musicians do not play with this type of metrical awareness, depending more often upon melodic progression and harmonic tension/release to shape their phrases and gestures. Of course, to infuse a piano piece with this kind of metrical awareness means counting aloud with dynamics in our voices, and that isn't easy for most. But the dividends are significant in the generation of musical ideas for our performance. For example, counting aloud with dynamics in the voice might suggest a crescendo in the left-hand accompaniment of the last three eighth notes in measure four of the first movement of Clementi's Sonatina, Op. 36, No. 3. This lends a lively energy to the RH staccato thirds of measure five (see Excerpt 4).

Excerpt 4: Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, No. 3, Mvt. 1, by Muzio Clementi, mm. 1-8.

Counting aloud also suggests a similarly buoyant left-hand accompaniment in Czerny's Etude, Op. 299, No. 7, where emphasizing the fourth beat of measure two of the left hand into the pulse on the downbeat of measure three (and so forth) gives more life to the right hand staccato octaves that are energized by those "four-to-one" pulses (see Excerpt 5).The dynamic nexus of beat and rhythm is almost intoxicating once we begin to explore its many uses in shaping our music, and its tasteful use can enliven our performances.

Excerpt 5: Etude in C Major, Op. 299, No. 7, by Carl Czerny, mm. 1-6.

The dynamics of harmony and melody

With harmony and melody there is also a nexus of a dynamic nature—one that is more understood and used by musicians. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of the "appoggiatura," which can be defined here as a "wrong note" on a strong beat which resolves by step to a "right note" on a weak beat (one that is part of the harmony). Here are three good examples to illustrate with students (see Examples 6, 7, and 8):

Example 6: Appoggiatura (A in right hand) over a C major triad in the left hand.
Example 7: Appoggiatura (B in right hand) over a F major triad in the left hand.
Example 8: Appoggiatura (A in right hand) over a G7 chord in the left hand.

In each instance the non-harmonic first note in the right hand is played strongly to emphasize its dissonance, and then is resolved quietly to the second note (consonance). We then tell students that most great melodies feature this device to make them more expressive, and then ask if they recognize the tune made up of the above examples. When they don't, we can play the entire melody to their amazement (see Example 9).

Example 9: Happy Birthday to You by Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill. The letter A denotes an appoggiatura.

Where would the second movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 21, K. 467, be without these appoggiaturas? When playing this melody, we more or less "lean" on each of them with an expressive dynamic in this nexus of sound: "The harmony is the bones, and melody is the flesh... and we flesh out the melody on the bones of the harmony!" (See Example 10 and Excerpt 11.)

Example 10: The Nexus of Harmony and Melody.
Excerpt 11: Concerto in C Major, K. 467, Mvt. 2, by W. A. Mozart, mm. 23-29. The letter A denotes an appoggiatura.

The dynamic examples of the expressive tension and release intrinsic to this device are found almost everywhere, and students who know about it, and emphasize these moments, become immediately more musical. Both the nexus of time (beat and rhythm), and the nexus of sound (harmony and melody) live in a dynamic relationship which, when discovered and used by students, transform their music making. Going on to include ALL of the eight ingredients in our "musically interrelated mobile" would be the next step in nurturing more musically and emotionally connected students!

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