Joe's Blog

Never max out in volume, it leaves no room in which to maneuver musically

January 11, 2020

This entry in the blog is related to an earlier one that spoke about how many small degrees of increments in loudness are perceptible by the ear between, say, pianissimo and piano, as against the number of such increments  between piano and mezzo piano, mezzo piano and mezzo forte, etc..

Two interesting facts emerged in that earlier blog.  1. When ‘shaping’ a phrase we should, from note to note, make use of every possible increment of relative loudness and softness, down to the most minimal ones that the ear can perceive.  2. That the number of these minimal subdivisions in loudness does not remain constant as we go from pp, to p, mp, mf, f, ff..  As we get louder, there are fewer and fewer minimally perceivable gradations in loudness before we have already spilledd over into the next ‘milepost’ of  loudness for which we have a notation symbol. That, for example, between f and ff there are fewer distinguishable degrees in loudness than there are between mf and f, which in turn has fewer than from mp to mf.

This means when we are trying to shape a phrase while playing, on average, louder, we soon exhaust all the possible, subtle gradations of loudness and can easily find ourselves suddenly much louder – which defeats the subliminal art of giving ‘shape’ and form to the music (see earlier blog entries about “shaping” a phrase through subtle dynamic changes). This ‘shape’ disappears if the difference in loudness between one note and the  text in the phrase are either to large or too monotone. In sum, it becomes  harder and harder to give an aesthetically pleasing contour to bring out the  shape of a phrase, the louder we play.   Mp to mf is an ideal, average range to  stay within to have maximum amount of dynamic room without getting  less than mp or louder than mf.  Remember, we are talking only about averages; there is still occasion for sounds that are softer than mp and louder than mf.   To borrow a phrase from singers, mp to mf, is a good  tessitura  “texture”) for a piece.

The main thrust of today’s blog entry about gradations of loudness has a  slightly different focus: the distribution in a piece specifically those places of highest dynamic intensity. And how important it is to retain a sense of relativity in the loudnesses of one climax compared to another. Climaxes  are not all equally loud simply by virtue of their all being ‘climaxes’. It all  depends on the texture and musical meaning of the passage.

It is not uncommon that a student, when they arrive at a climax, maxes out  in loudness, and remains throughout the passage at their most extreme  possible loudness. This gives the pianist no more room in which to further  shape the phrases if the piece. Instead the character of the piece becomes frozen in time, because always being maintained at the highest peak of loudness.  The only discernible characteristic of the passage reduces to simply its loudness.

To maintain the outline of the dramaturgical  curve of the music, one should always leave something in reserve. Always have the possibility of growing even further in intensity. At each moment in the piece, always leave room  or someplace to go ‘to’ (whether louder or softer).  Don’t box yourself into a corner with no place to move to.

Softness and loudness live along a continuous spectrum. Any degree of softness or loudness should imply the possibility of a sound that is respectively louder than it or softer than it. When playing at a softer  dynamic, there should be qualities associated with loudness that lie latent  in the sound. A feeling of loudness should always remain inside the aura of a soft sound, and vice versa.

One of the ways of tracing the changing dramaturgical  curve of a piece of  music, through time. is to use the analogy of spatial curve.  The curve should take intimate note of where the intensity of the piece is temporarily growing or decreasing. This is a relative thing versus an exact measurement  f how loud or soft the piece is at the moment.

Notice how an accurate graph of these two characteristics have increasing  sections ‘nesting’ inside a longer, broader general sense of decreasing, and vice versa. It is a complex curve that generally will contain zero or more  minimum and/or maximum points.

When one draws a graphic representation of this curve in space, then, as  with  any mathematical curve, zero or more maximum points will show up in the curve. Let us say that there are a series of several or more maximum  points along the curve. Each is a ‘climax’ because it is approached through growing intensity and followed by lessening intensity. If you ignored most  of the curve,  keeping only the maximum points themselves, and simply  connected one maximum point with the next with a straight line segment, the result should not add up to a single horizontal longer line segment from one end of the graph to the other. It should be more at being a ‘broken’ line there, at the end of one line segment meets the next, there should be some  noticeable angle or change in slope.

Rather than every maximum (climax), being at the same height (loudness) on the graph, there should be variation from one to the other represented by a separate dramaturgical curve that threads together just the high points.

If, instead, all the climaxes are of equal loudness, the question arises, when  the listener encounters any one of them: “Is this one the most important  climax: are we at the main climax of the piece”? There should be some  intuitive way of answering this question, even though you may not have yet encountered all the points of greatest intensity remaining in the piece (in its  future tense). Rather, we want some sense of the relative value of this  climax versus others in the same movement or piece, otherwise the piece has no sense true sense of duration and development through the  continuous passing of time. With each climax we would seem to return to the same thing, something distinguished aesthetically only by its loudness.

The worst case scenario, the piece becomes a random succession of unmotivated softer sections and louder sections. Things do not “impend” into the future. Past and future become the same. We are set adrift in the  piece, our positions in present time seem a bit random relative to when the piece began and when it may end.

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