Less is More (More or Less)

This is a horrifying issue to grapple with.

The question of whether I the composer have put too many dynamics in my music.

As a fastidious writer I find no difficulty expressing exact thoughts in pitches and rhythms, and will gladly work overtime to perfect every note. Yet once I have written (clicked) in the double bar and turned back to the opening to mark dynamics, I mysteriously shrivel at the thought of communicating my musical intentions with such simplistic labels as “forte” and “mezzo piano” when realistically a myriad of dynamics occurs within a well-interpreted measure. The disastrous end is that too many markings present the player with an overload of information. Ironically, excess dynamics can be perceived as “noise” and risk being ignored altogether.

If we scan music scores from the past, we notice a historical trend progressing from fewer markings to the almost absurd quantities that accompany our present society’s philosophy of exactness. Bach wrote no dynamic markings; Mozart wrote strictly piano and forte; Beethoven added sforzandos and mid-range markings, while Strauss entirely monopolized all artistic interpretation.

It is perhaps tragic that as a composer I can never be sure whether a mezzo piano or mezzo forte will be that “perfect volume,” while I can carry out rhythms and pitches with nearly absolute precision. Add to this uncertainty the practice of assigning custom dynamics to each instrument. While a single balanced chord may have several dynamic values, trying to calculate them confidently is far from easy and can confuse the players who are likely used to balancing their own ensemble without help. All this and even after hours of meditation of the best marking choices I still find myself questioning every marking I made within a matter of weeks!

I conclude that excessive dynamics are unnecessary for the following reasons:

  1. Any dynamic marking is highly general
  2. Too many dynamics can be seen as “noise” by performers and can be overlooked entirely.
  3. Overly specific markings limit the creativity and unique interpretation the ensemble can bring to it.
  4. An abundance of markings takes far too much time for the minuscule benefits it offer.

It seems that, much as I would like to nail dynamics, music is not math and cannot be defined so cleanly. Anything more than a general dynamic outline is probably not of real use to the performer in accurately interpreting a work.

Even Romantics tended towards sparseness in their dynamic assignment, while showing careful attention to notes and articulations. For instance, Dvorak generally made a single dynamic marking per phrase, with crescendos and the like being a rarity rather than a regularity.

In my own writing, I now strive for these traits:

  1. One or two dynamics at most per phrase with the exception of special directives like sforzandos or crescendos/decrescendos. We must remember that professional musicians have trained their entire lives to tastefully interpret the flow and intent of musical passages. One can assume basic principles of expressivity will be applied.
  2. Greater use of evocative text such as espressivo or appassionato to give the performer a mood to communicate.
  3. Using dynamics to outline at best the general hierarchy of the piece, rather than minutia.

So far, this approach has been freeing for me and I trust it will help my performers do what they do best: learn and interpret the music. Keep in mind, I am not saying this style of writing is the only correct one, but rather that it suites my musical makeup. I am certain Strauss (an utter genius) knew exactly what he was doing. But for those of us who are mortal, the philosophy of less may be the ticket to solid dynamic assignment.

What are your thoughts as a performer? Composer? Conductor? Let’s start a dialogue. Simply leave a comment below.