Brian's Guitar Journal / Practice Tips

DAY 115 : Quiet Is The New Loud

Today’s practice was dominated by these thoughts about dynamics:

Dynamic control (along with subtleties of rhythmic timing) is among the highest levels of refinement we concern ourselves with in terms of pure technique. To interpret a series of discrete notes with rhythmic and/or dynamic intelligence allows us to bind them together into something phenomenologically different: the melodic line. The notes themselves are like strands of amino acid floating lifeless in the primordial oceans. The melodic line created once the notes are interpreted is alive.

Rhythm continues to hold an ever more enduring place in western musical culture. Infectious rhythms of remarkable complexity have swept across the globe with the undeniable influence and ease of the wind itself. From origins in Africa and Southeast Asia over to Europe and the Americas, musicians have for centuries been engaged an ongoing rhythmic dialogue that has resulted in a breathtaking plurality of counts, dances, phases and beats.

Dynamics, on the other hand, seem to be suffering the opposite fate. Dynamics seem to be suffocating in music culture. What was once an gentle gradient from pianissimo to fortissimo has been increasingly downsampled to fewer and fever layers of subtlety. When popular music conquered the musical world of the twentieth century we were introduced to the regime of the “quiet” verse which sets up the “loud” chorus. Then the digital audio revolution came along and introduced more and more dynamic compression in post production of recorded music. The result was music had a loud verse and I loud chorus. When I listen to music being produced now, it is startling how the dynamic scale has essentially become binary. Popular music today can sometimes sound like you are hearing a Morse code consisting of every sound in the world flashing alternately against rhythmic inserts of silence.

I’m trying really hard not have this post veer into the realm of music criticism. I really don’t care who is making what or why (at least I don’t care anymore ;) ). I just think that it is interesting to realize that I grew up in the middle of this trend where the 2 most important threads of musical intelligence began to follow wildly opposite paths. Rhythm went headlong down the path of development and dynamics is being choked out of existence.

I only point out these apparent cultural trends because of how the musical cultures in which we live and work influences how we direct our attention. The development of a musician’s rhythmic intelligence is in 2016 a given. Intelligent rhythms are in the air everywhere now. I have noted throughout my own musical development a certain natural ease to interpret the rhythmic domain, and not just in terms of beats and subdivisions, but also swing and subtle placement of attack in and around the beat. That rhythmic sense is built into a cultural language in which we are all fluent.

Dynamic subtlety (like subjectivity in our narrative arts or nuance in our politics) is not part of our cultural language. The extent to which musicians in 2016 wish to develop and employ a sense of dynamic range in our work, is the extent to witch we operate outside the influence of contemporary music culture. Without this realization we can easily discount, if not entirely overlook this entire domain of musical intelligibility.

Like some examples of early music devoid of rhythm, music which employs only a binary sense of dynamics is not fully alive. In my next revision of the practice plan I will weave dynamics into the exercise routine.

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