Learn Keyboard NJ: Piano Dynamics

Dynamic inflection is natural to all instruments other than those belonging to the organ and harpsichord families. Dynamics can be divided into two types:

  1. inflection dynamics, which may best be compared to the rise and fall of a speaking voice; and
  2. structural dynamics, which (to continue the analogy) mirror the contrast between a single voice and the combined voices of a crowd. The two types are not mutually exclusive: they overlap continually, and both fundamental to music.

To determine inflectional dynamics it will generally be found helpful to think of the music in terms of the voice. The melodic rise and fall tends to be echoed by a dynamic rise and fall. The phrasing is also an important factor: for the shape of a phrase conditions its dynamics and dynamics help to define the phrase. Hence it is important for the player to decide where the climax of a phrase occurs—it may or may not coincide with the melodic peak—and what relationship it bars to neighboring phrases.

Another consideration is the harmonics of the sustaining pedal.

The harmony should also be considered. Discord implies tension and hence accent, while concord implies relaxation and lack of accent; thus a cadence, as its name suggests, generally requires a dynamic fall.

The extreme dynamic marks of pp and ff are unusual in the keyboard works of Haydn and Mozart , and correspondingly significant when they do occur. The basic marks are p and f; and the contrast between these two is still, as it was at an earlier period, of fundamental importance. Not that p and f should ever be regarded as having any absolute value, or as allowing no change within themselves. On the contrary, they stand for a greater variety of dynamic levels in early classical music than they do today, for mf was then comparatively rare, pf (poco forte) and mezza voce rarer still, and p non-existent; and though the broad contrast between f and p must always be maintained, it is not only allowable but essential to use dynamic inflections within these levels.

Beethoven’s dynamic marks are more extreme than those of Haydn and Mozart, the whole range from pp to ff being normal rather than exceptional in his piano music. They are also fuller and more precise. The word cresc. is used idiosyncratically by Beethoven in two slightly different ways. Normally it means that the increase in volume should continue to the level of the next mark, as in cresc. p --- f. But when the next mark happens to be a p, it generally implies that the p should be read as subito, that is, as a drop from the level attained immediately before it. At times, too, it will be found that Beethoven uses the mark sf to indicate the peak of a crescendo.

Instruments used by Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann were closer to our own than to a fortepiano; nevertheless they were still considerably less thick and powerful than a modern grand. Mendelssohn in particular must have preferred a touch and tone that was distinctly on the light side, for this would have suited the quick and delicate pp staccato register that was transparent rather than powerful. If these facts are not borne in mind when playing Mendelssohn today, the heavier quality of our pianos will continually distort his typically light and delicate texture.

With Chopin and Schumann the situation is less straightforward. Their music at times seems to reach out towards the weight and power of the modern piano; yet it should never be forgotten that both composers wrote essentially for an intimate group of listeners in a salon or drawing-room, rather for a more impersonal audience in a large concert hall. Hence, sensitiveness was of greater importance to them than sheer dynamic power.

All in all, therefore, it would seem advisable for today’s interpreter of Chopin and Schumann to moderate the power of his instrument somewhat. The impression of strength and weight of tone must often be there; but should always be a reserve, to match not only both composers’ preference for an intimate atmosphere, but also the ‘inward’ quality that is such an essential part of their music.

The full dynamic range of the modern piano was available to Liszt and Brahms. Although Liszt belonged to the previous generation, his music, like that of Beethoven, demanded and anticipated every increase in power that the piano manufacturer could supply. So for much of his career he was able to play on the modern piano itself.