The word dynamics in music refers to the volume of the sound or note. Dynamics are part of the vast array of musical expression and interpretation marks written into music. Dynamic markings do not represent specific values of volume; they are relative, depending on many factors, from the size of the room in which you are performing to the style or historic context of the piece.
Dynamic markings are generally written as shortened Italian terms. The basic volumes are quiet, which is written as the letter p, representing the Italian word piano, and loud, the Italian word forte, written as f. Within piano and forte there are grades of volume, including mezzo piano which is louder than piano and mezzo forte which is quieter than forte. Sometimes you might see other descriptive words with the dynamic marking, for example the word più, which means more. When you see più piano it literally means more quiet. At the extremes of dynamic are pp, pianissimo, which is very quiet, and ff, fortissimo, which is very loud. You can see multiples of the p or f, such as fff or ppp when the composer wants a really strong volume effect.
Changes of dynamic are also marked in Italian. Subito forte, for example, means suddenly loud. A forte piano, written fp, is where a note begins forte and suddenly becomes quiet. Sforzandos and accents are notes which have strong beginnings. Crescendos and diminuendos, which are where the music gets louder or softer, are marked as shortened terms, cresc. or dim, or as ‘hairpins,’ which look like this:
The elements of violin technique relevant to the successful realisation of dynamics are the same as the three fundamentals of tone production.
Starting with the basics, this video shows how the dynamic movement of the body; arm weight and back muscles; can be applied to the violin to make a good tone:
The way the bow arm is used affects the tone quality and the volume of sound. The three factors that interplay are the amount of weight placed into the bow, the speed at which the bow is used and at which position between the fingerboard and bridge the bow is drawn.
Within these parameters, the mechanics of playing forte and piano on the violin are very different from each other. The bow hold must alter subtly to effect every change in volume.
In piano, where you might want to create a transparent, quiet sound, the first finger moves towards its base joint in the way it touches the bow stick, and the other fingers come slightly off the stick. When the bow needs to settle into the string more to play forte, where more breadth of sound is required, the index finger readjusts. The wrist will have a feeling of pulling the bow and the first finger will slightly spread away from the second and feel a closer contact with the stick, nearer to its middle joint.
Greater speed in the bow stroke per beat means greater energy transmitted into the violin. If the pressure, which is the other energy-producing factor, remains the same, a change in speed will alter the dynamic. Increasing the speed of the bow makes the sound louder; decreasing it creates a softer sound.
For a note that requires the same dynamic throughout, the best and simplest way to use the bow is with an equal speed for its whole length. Equal speed means equal bow division. For example, if there are four quavers (quarter notes) to be played within one bow stroke, each note should be played with one quarter of the bow. If there is a dotted crotchet (dotted half note) and a single quaver (quarter note), the dotted note will be played with three quarters of the bow and the quaver with the remaining quarter. It is tempting to set off with too fast a bow stroke which means that the bow runs out towards the end of the stroke. This makes sustaining an even dynamic impossible. Practice long notes of four beats with the metronome at crotchet = 60, dividing the bow equally into quarters with the beat. Make sure that after two beats you have not passed the halfway point. Another way to practice slow bows is to gradually work up with a metronome to long notes of 30 seconds per bow.
The volume of the violin also depends on the weight of the bow into the strings. The bow is not equal at each end. The frog is much heavier than the tip, and also supported by the weight of the arm, whereas the tip of the bow is much lighter and used by the arm in almost full extension. When an even dynamic is required, the pressure used must be uneven to compensate for this difference. At the frog, the volume comes from the weight of the arm into the thumb and the third and fourth fingers. In the middle of the bow, the weight comes from the arm into the middle fingers and thumb, which requires a free upper arm and shoulder without excessive tension. To get extra volume at the tip of the bow where the arm is extended, use flatter bow hair, so there is more hair in contact with the string, and transfer additional weight from the middle and fourth fingers into the first and second fingers. The wrist and hand move down slightly and help the weight transfer.
There is a constant fluctuation and balance within the hand with every bow stroke, between the first and second, middle, and third and fourth fingers and the thumb. See if you can draw a long slow bow, starting at the frog with only the thumb and fourth finger on the bow. As you move towards the tip, transfer the weight into the middle fingers, lift off the fourth, and let the weight gradually transfer into the index finger, until you are at the tip of the bow holding it between only the index finger and thumb. Reverse the process, ending back at the frog with only your fourth finger and thumb on the stick.
One tricky aspect of technique is where bow division is not straightforward, for example where there is a recurring rhythmic pattern of long and short notes. To stay in the same part of the bow whilst playing a long, short, long, short rhythm, the speed of the bow for the short note will have to increase. This change of speed will create an increase in sound, so the shorter note is louder. To make the dynamic even between the two note lengths, it is necessary to adjust the pressure. By lightening the pressure of the bow on the short note, you can maintain a steady tone.
Often though, the dynamic is not meant to be even. Accents, crescendos and other expressive dynamics give subtle nuance to phasing and interpretation. Constant tiny manipulations of the bow occur to produce changes in speed and pressure.
Experiment with different degrees of pressure. Notice that too much pressure actually prevents the string from vibrating and crushes the sound. Extreme pressure can also have the affect of altering the pitch, and if you press really hard you will hear a sound an octave lower than the note you are playing.
A sforzando, written sfz, is an accent at the start of a note, followed by a sustained draw for the value of the note. It is a similar stroke to martelé, which is a strong, expressive detached stroke. The volume of the sforzando depends on the dynamic level in the phrase where it is played. The weight for the accent comes from a first and second finger bite on the bow and thumb pressure against the frog.
An accent, shown with this symbol > above or below a note, is a similar articulation to the sforzando, but with a lighter accent at the beginning of the note. Immediately after the accent, the weight is released and the bow drawn in a legato style for the rest of the note. Again, the amount of accent depends on the dynamic level. A loud accent will naturally be stronger than one in piano. The weight comes from the first and second fingers on the bow and thumb pressure against the frog.
The third element of technique that determines the creation of dynamics is the sounding point; the position of the bow on the string between the bridge and the fingerboard. The violin will produce a louder, more vibrant tone closer to the bridge, and a softer, less distinct sound near the fingerboard. A flat bow, pulled parallel to and near the bridge will bring out a full, loud sound.
As explained in Simon Fischer’s book Basics, the two famous violin teachers, Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, both divided the area between the bridge and the fingerboard into five sound points. Flesch called them:
Different sound points combined with different bow speeds and pressures create more subtle variations of tone and dynamics. Whatever amount of speed and pressure you are using, there is a sound point where the string will vibrate more and the note will sound more vibrant.
Slower, heavy bows on sound point 2, which is near the bridge, will produce lots of volume. Fast, light bows on sound point 5 will be quiet.
It is possible to use the sound points to crescendo and diminuendo with rich and expressive tone. Glide the bow towards the fingerboard or pull it towards the bridge in such a way that it never loses its right angle relationship to the string, like the gramophone needle gently moving from one ring of the record to the next. An alternative method is to slightly angle the bow, using the non-parallel angle to move nearer to the bridge or fingerboard within the bow stroke.
The performance of dynamics, which are relative and not absolute, depends on many factors. Galamian explains in his book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, “Anybody who talks to a few people in a small room need not even raise his voice…Speaking in a large auditorium, however, to an audience of thousands, is obviously an entirely different matter. The speaker will have to speak louder, slower and more clearly. These are obvious things, yet it is strange how few are the instrumentalists who realize that the same things apply to them when they perform in public.”
The way dynamics work within a piece change depending on the size of the hall and audience, and on the acoustic. If the hall is very resonant and not too big, not much needs to be done, but if the acoustic is dead and dry, or the hall is very large, all of the dynamics need to be upgraded. This is easy enough in the piano and pianissimo passages, but when loud dynamics such as forte and fortissimo occur, you need to be flexible with bowings, so you can change the bow as much as necessary to get the required volume without forcing the tone.
Dynamics are also relative depending on your role in a performance. As the soloist in front of an orchestra, your dynamics will be augmented, whereas if you are sitting in the orchestra, you should never play louder than the other players or your sound will not blend. As the second violinist in a quartet, you need to project your sound through that of the first violinist and cellist who are not only sitting further forward, they are playing at pitches which naturally project better on their instruments. It is important in chamber music to know the score; to understand what role your part has. If you have a melody or important countermelody, the relative dynamic of your part may be more than someone else’s, even though you both have the same dynamic marking. The same goes if your part is accompanying. You may need to play more quietly.
Let’s recap with a short video demonstration of different dynamics on the violin:
You might also find this printable worksheet helpful (courtesy of www.teachervision.com) to make sure you recognise the dynamics in your own music.