Let's consider the following challenge. Pick your favorite backing track, grab your instrument and get ready for some action! Now, use only two notes to play a solo or groove. Get a timer and play for about two minutes. If you are not used to playing using dynamics, it's likely that you will run out of ideas fairly quickly. Wasn't it feeling a touch too repetitive at the end? Let's try the same exercise once again, but this time through we will combine soft notes with louder ones to create your phrasing. This is not only about using volume levels ‘soft’ and ‘loud’, but also everything in between, allowing your musical ideas to flow from one end to the other. Now you have tools such as time and groove, melody and harmony, and also the expressiveness of dynamic motion.
The beauty of playing dynamics is that it does not take as much training to master them as it does playing with a metronome, or learning your scales, or even playing your favorite songs. A very minimalistic approach will provide great results! This is a particularly useful tool when playing at a slow tempo. When playing slowly, our notes get usually longer and our melodies simpler, and playing dynamically will certainly bring the edge they need to stand out. Let’s think about a blues, for instance. Can you imagine a blues in which all notes are played with the very same intensity? You probably heard the expression ‘playing with feeling’ before. What is the meaning of it? Using dynamics.
***Guitar players: If you love to play rock and you are attempting to work on this exercise using high gain, it's unlikely that your amp will reproduce much of a dynamic range as distortion naturally compresses sound. Try using your clean tone or very little gain (aka Tubescreamer like pedals) to work on this exercise.
Let's now talk about things that will make it easier or more difficult to play using dynamics. If you play an electric instrument (guitar / bass / keyboard / electronic drum kits / etc. ) you can avoid using dynamics. But wait, why would you do such a 'crazy thing'? I thought dynamics were very important?! In certain scenarios, dynamics can be something you may want to avoid. Let's think of a bass player. Many bass players use a device (usually in the form of a pedal) called 'compressor'. What a compressor does is very interesting. It raises the quietest sounds and it lowers the loudest ones. In other words, it compresses the sound.
This is quite useful when combining a naturally loud technique such as 'slap', with a considerably quieter technique such as finger plucking. Guitar players, whether they realize it or not, create the same compression effect when they increase the gain on their distortion. For the distortion is a form of compression even if this is not its primary function. There are also many examples of techniques that guitar players use that require avoiding dynamics. When playing tapping and legato, your attack is usually soft and without a little distortion. Thus with some compression, they are rather hard to execute properly. Have you ever tried to play a Van Halen solo with no distortion? This may be a truly challenging experience. Also, electronic drum sets and keyboards almost always have an option to eliminate dynamics, making every note play at the exact same volume.
From blues to metal, folk, classical music and everything in between, dynamics provide one of the essential tools for musicians to express themselves through their music. Make use of them, practice and enjoy the results!