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Dynamic Affairs

With a little understanding of dynamics and how they work, you can use their default to your advantage.
Everyone knows that p means soft and f means loud, but there is a little more to it
than that. Many people these days might relate dynamics to a MIDI controller
value. pp is 10, p 30, mp 50, mf 75, f 100, ff 120 or something like that. But as we are
writing for humans, dynamics are subjective and forte is not the same volume in
every case. What I have found useful is to think of dynamics not in terms of volume,
but confidence and type of attack.
A pianissmo dynamic will get you a mushy attack, and so will piano and mezzo piano.
It is not until you get to mezzo forte where the attacks firm up. One day mezzo piano
might be the same volume as mezzo forte; it depends on what is going on around it,
but you still get the mushy attack. Keep in mind I am talking about the orchestra here
as a whole, obviously a Harp can not play a mushy attack.
At dynamics pianissimo to mezzo piano you will also get a tapering effect. The effect of
the mushy attack is a slight crescendo at the start of a phrase. Players also do little
diminuendos at the end, giving a natural breath to the music. This is especially evident in the string section.
I have found that mezzo piano is the most ambiguous dynamic. If you are not sure
how soft a passage should be, write mp and the band will sort it out. It is like saying
proceed with caution. If I could reprogram the orchestra I would change mp so that
it had a firmer attack. I wish mezzo piano meant soft with a firm attack, but alas, that
is not what happens. One trick to get this is to put a tenuto on the starting note. This
will get you a more assertive attack. The strings will use a down-bow and/or apply
more pressure. As well as meaning to play full duration, a tenuto articulation means
to play broadly. In doing that, the attack is firmed up. This is good for all string,
woodwind, and brass sections. For percussion, harp, and keyboards, it is redundant;
however, some would argue it has a psychological effect.

The first confident dynamic is mezzo forte. Attacks firm up (but are still not accented)
and there is less automatic phrasing. I think of mezzo forte as a full sound, but not
powerful. One still needs to watch out for notes at the end of a phrases. The players,
especially strings, will still pull back a little on the last note unless you force them not
to. It sounds natural, as it is the way the traditional orchestra phrases, but often in
film music we need a hold to the bar line, so I find I have to say senza dim. to cancel
the default.
Full confidence happens at forte. Everyone starts together with a solid attack and
there is less natural tapering to phrases.
Finally, fortissimo is all out and assertive attacks. People tend to use a lot of accents as
well at fortissimo. I save the accents for when I really want one; remember the definition of an accent is that it is louder than the notes around it. If you really do want
them to go all out, feel free to use accents on every note but know that once you have
done that you cant get much more out of the players. If you want big attacks, mark it
marc. and save the accents.
The Extremes
In my work the softest dynamic I use is pp and the loudest is ff. I have found that
there is no difference in writing ff or fff and in the last ten years when it has been up
to me I have never used fff. I have orchestrated the two loudest scores ever, God of
War 2 and God of War 3, and I made it without going above ff. In the absence of fff,
players know that ff means to really go for it. I will sometimes put a little crescendo
on the last bar even if we are already at ff, just to get that last push out of them, but I
still never put fff at the end of it; it is pretty much implied. So what makes something
sound fff? Orchestration. Once everyone is playing ff, as loud as they can, it is how
you orchestrate that pushes the sound to the next level. You make sure everyone is
playing in their most powerful range and use percussion to build the volume even

At the other end, I do not use ppp on my own projects. The only time I use ppp and fff
is when I am not lead orchestrator and I know the lead uses it; I will be consistent
with the leads dynamic use. There is nothing wrong with using these more extreme
dynamics, but I have found in the absence of ppp or fff, pp and ff adapt to mean super
soft and very loud, especially if orchestrated properly. I think of niente as an effect,
not so much a dynamic.
As I mentioned earlier, mp could be the same as mf on a different day. As we are dealing with humans, they listen and work out where things should be; it is one of those
amazing pack things an orchestra can do. So too f can be different. When we are
recording an aggressive game score f will be louder and harsher than f in a romantic
comedy score. You dont need to say anything. I have never added a lot of descriptions like aggressively or forcefully. Standard notation and good orchestration can
make it happen; no description is needed.
If the above confuses you, perhaps this will help, or maybe not!
Using Dynamics to Balance
A common way to balance an ensemble for a particular sound or color is to give different dynamics to different sections. But there is more at play with this than just the
volumes. In fact, as no player knows what other players have as their dynamic, they
tend to blend the volume. So then why and how does this work? The dynamic implies a type of attack and a confidence level. By mixing the dynamics you are giving
importance, not just volume, to different lines.
The best way to bring out an important line is to mark it soli or say bring out; that
way you can employ the correct dynamic for the attack you want.
One thing I have noticed is that the larger the orchestra, the more evening out that
will happen. With a small orchestra you do have to think a little more about your dynamics.
An example of using different dynamics is in a romantic tutti. Strings are playing a
big tune in octaves and trombones are providing harmonic pad. If you mark the
strings f and the trombones mf or mp, perhaps with swells, you get that classic blend;
the trombones will not stick out and their attacks and transitions will be legato. If you
give them f, the attacks will be stronger and they will stick out. They will go from
background to foreground. All we want from them in this situation is to provide a

harmonic pad.
Articulation Dynamics
sfz, sf, fz So many variations, but what do they mean? Honestly, books are pretty
confusing on the subject, with all sorts of pictures and explanations. All I can do is
tell you what happens when you use them in the real world. They all produce an accented attack. I also do not see much reason for using sffz; technically it should be
louder than sfz, but I just use sfz and have always gotten what I wanted, even if the
score is already at ff. The players are not computers. They dont think this now has
only one f so I have to play less, they just see that the note needs a bigger attack. I
tend to leave accents off a note that has sfz (and sfp etc) on it, as sfz already means to
accent. In general you will get a bigger accent for sfz than with a > symbol; however,
using both does not make it any different. Like all dynamics, it is contextual.
Both fp and sfp mean to hit the note and drop back. Usually they are followed by a
crescendo. If you ever do use these and do NOT want the players to crescendo, it is a
good idea to mark it no cresc, or some players will assume you just forgot to put it
in. This is a place where I have to go against all my theories of restraint and intentionally over-notate.
Useful Dynamics
sfp is great in brass, however sometimes it can be too much to drop all the way down
to p. In cases where you need to maintain a certain volume floor (and that seems to be
more and more these days), I have found sfmf gets me a nice accent with a slight drop
in sound. You will hear it happen, but it does not feel like the brass have dropped out
for a second. Be a little more mindful when using these in strings as it is much harder
to get a tight performance of it. The accent is often longer than it is in the brass, which
is especially noticeable when strings are performing tremolo. The accent requires a
lot of momentum and it is hard to then lose that in order to drop back to p. I often just
give the strings an accent and leave the sfp to just the brass. This is another way to
maintain some sound immediately after the attack, and you get a nice push from the
brass as they come back. I have found that as samples do not play sfp too well, composers and directors are not as used to hearing the dramatic drop in sound. This is
where sfmf comes in handy. fmf is also quite useful, it produces a nice round attack
with a slight drop off, but in most cases the results are the same as mf with an accent.
I often see dynamics placed before notes. This
is incorrect. The dynamic goes right under or
a hair left of center of the note it refers to.

Sometimes you need to move them around a bit in the score to avoid a collision, but
in the part they must be under the note.
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