Tuesday, September 25, 2012

musings about dynamics

“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians. “
Frank Zappa

Sunday night I went to see Fred Hersch at the Jazz Showcase.  As expected I really enjoyed the show.  I was talking to a friend and he was not as floored.  He felt the show lacked dynamic range.  I disagreed but it got me thinking about what dynamics are.  Traditionally they are defined as the little letters or volume markings under the music.  I think they are so much more.  So here are my musings.

In my mind dynamics are all about physical volume and density.  How much space the notes take up and how close together they are.  As the quote alludes to above, we are imposing our will on air molecules.  I like to think about this as a 3 dimensional process.  I define volume not in the acoustic sense but rather in the geometric sense.  How much space the notes take up and how densely they occupy that space.  The 3 dimensions in my model are the traditional ones of length, width, and height.

Length refers to horizontal density, how many notes in a line, and how relatively consonant or dissonant they are to the prevailing harmony.   Any of these factors can cause the line to take up more space.  More notes, more rhythmic variation, more dissonance equals greater volume and density.   Less notes, less rhythmic variation, more consonance equals less volume and less density.

Height refers to vertical density, how many notes are in a chord voicing, closed or open voicing, and relative consonance or dissonance to the prevailing harmony.  Open consonant voicings are perceived as quiet and closed dissonant voicings are perceived as loud.

Width refers to acoustic loudness.  Notes at a higher decibel level will be virtue of the amount of air molecules they are exciting take up more space.

These three factors contribute to dynamics.

A note about consonance.   Pythagoras and later Helmholtz talked about how acoustically consonant an interval sounded was based on frequency ratios.  Pythagoras theorized that frequencies with ratios of lower simple numbers were more consonant than those that are higher.   Later Helmholtz theorized about partials (harmonics and overtones).  He felt that consonance had to do with the coincidence of partials.  Basically the idea that every note or interval has a series of harmonic overtones associated with it.  How these partials coincide determines how relatively consonant or dissonant a collection of pitches will be.  I like these definitions because they say nothing about the traditional idea the consonant equals pleasant and dissonant unpleasant.  Rather they just speak to the level of acoustic activity.

Dynamics are about the amount of space a pitch or collection of pitches take up.  The amount of activity.  Fred and others like him have really made me rethink to whole concept.  Music doesn’t have to be of a high decibel level to be loud.

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