Dynamics in Music: Unlock the Power of Expression

dynamics in music

Dynamics in music is a basic concept that affects everything from songwriting to mastering.

But the word comes up so often that it can mean different things in different situations.

In this article we’ll go over what dynamics are and explain what the term means everywhere it’s commonly used.

Let’s get started.

What are dynamics?

Dynamics are the variations in loudness that occur in a passage of music. That might sound simple, but dynamics is a broad concept that comes into play at all the different stages of music production.

Dynamics in music can refer to:

  • Written dynamics markings in a musical score
  • Variations in loudness during a song
  • The dynamic range of an audio signal or system
  • The individual features of a sound’s amplitude envelope

We’ll go through each and explain how they work.

Dynamics markings

In case you’ve ever read a score or a lead sheet, you might be familiar with dynamics markings.

They’re the small letters written in script that appear underneath a bar of music.

Dynamics markings allow you to know how loud to play each passage of the song. The instructions range from very quiet (ppp) to extremely loud (ƒƒƒ).

In this post, we provide you with the commonly used dynamics markings in music from loud to quiet:

dynamics markings in music

Like anything on a musical score, dynamics markings are open to interpretation. They’re the general guidelines the composer provides, but it’s up to the people playing to decide exactly how to play the music.

Dynamics in arrangement

The written method for communicating dynamics is pretty old fashioned, but dynamic contrasts play a part in almost every genre of music.

Think of the rising tension of an EDM buildup or the loud-quiet-loud approach of the grunge era.

Dynamics are a way to make the sense of tension and release that gives a song its narrative structure.

It can be as simple as building steadily to a loud finale or as subtle as varying loudness to define sections of a song.

However you approach it, working with dynamics is an important task in music arrangement.

Dynamic range

In music production, dynamic range means the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds. It’s measured in decibels, or dB for short.

In a single audio track, dynamic range means the dB difference between the loudest and quietest moment in the audio file.

Recording mediums and audio systems also have a dynamic range. This figure determines the loudest and quietest signals they can properly represent.

You can think of the dynamic range in a system as the space between the noise floor and the clipping point.

When a sound goes below the noise floor you won’t be able to tell the difference between the signal and the system noise of the medium.

When a sound goes above the clipping point the tops of its waveform will get abruptly cut off, causing harshness and distortion.

Despite the development in digital technology, your DAW still has a limited dynamic range. You might never come up against these limits in your workflow, but you have to keep them in mind in some situations.

Beginner and intermediate producers often don’t have good gain staging habits and accidentally let their tracks pile up at the master bus.

The maximum point in your DAW’s dynamic range is 0 dBFS. If you push your levels higher than this at your master fader, your entire mix will clip!

Gain staging is how you keep your tracks, busses and plugins in the sweet spot of the dynamic range.

In a single track, dynamic range depends on the qualities of the source you’re using to record.

Instruments with abrupt peaks and aggressive transients like struck percussion have a naturally large dynamic range while sustained synths and distorted guitars are typically more compressed.

Dynamics in mixing

Controlling your dynamics is one of the most important jobs in mixing. To do it well engineers use tools like compression, expansion, limiting and noise gates.

Dynamics are necessary because sounds in the real world vary a lot in volume. For example, imagine a whisper and a scream on the same audio track. If they were the same difference in loudness as they are in real life it would be shocking to listen to.

To make each element sound natural, mix engineers alter the dynamics so that each part of the sound can be heard clearly.

That might mean making an aggressive transient quieter to bring out the body of a sound’s waveform using compression.

Or making a flat percussion hit punch through the mix more aggressively with expansion.

Here’s a in-depth walkthrough on how compressors work with examples that show their effect on dynamics:

Dynamics in mastering

Dynamics and dynamic range are incredibly important in mastering.

Loudness, headroom and dynamics are all related in audio. In mastering, each factor influences the others in the final result. For example, a loud master that comes close to the maximum available level will have much less dynamic range than a quieter one.

You’ll have to decide whether to go for a louder more compressed master, or a quieter, gentler one with punchier dynamics.

Making the right decision depends on the genre of music, the target medium and the mix itself.

If that weren’t enough, mastering has strict guidelines for peaks and maximum levels overall.

Get them wrong and at best your song will sound quieter than other music on the major streaming platforms. At worst, you risk creating harsh digital clipping and distortion.

With so much riding on a good master, the best way to get it right is to hire a professional or try AI-powered mastering online.

Loud quiet loud

Dynamics are so fundamental to music that you probably have an intuitive feeling for them already.

Even so, unpacking the issues that make dynamics significant will change how you think about music production.

If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great start for working with dynamics in your tracks.

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