Part 1: What are Dynamics and What Can They Do For Me?

I swear to God, I once read that John Lennon said, “Silence is the fifth member of our band.” Or something like that. But I can’t find the quote anywhere on the internet, which makes me assume that it doesn’t exist and that I am finally completely insane. Now at least there is some kind of documented proof for when psychiatrists start looking for early signs.

Luckily, silence is a popular topic for musicians. And they all seem to make the same point as my imaginary John Lennon ghost quote. For example, Robert Fripp of King Crimson once said, “Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence.” I like that one because it’s about booze. Or composer Claude Debussy once said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” I’m inclined to agree with these statements. Silence is the building block of music. Basically, what these smart fellas are saying is that silence is vital to the creation of music. Many great musicians display a unique understanding and respect for the power of silence through both their compositions as well as quotes like this.

Although musicians seem to discuss it often, silence and its use in music is something I believe is extremely undervalued in general music discussion and criticism. Usually in favor of what I consider more surface-level aspects such as melody or timbre.

I should clarify that by silence, I don’t mean almost complete silence as in John Cage’s “4’33,” or in reference to decibels in music like with “The Loudness War”.  I mean volume fluctuations within the piece. I mean the relative silence compared to the phrase that came before. I mean the overall energy and propulsion of a song. Simply, I mean the loudness or quietness of a particular section of music. When an artist manipulates these things to make you feel feelings, it is known as dynamics.

I don’t just think dynamics are important to creating music; I think they are the only thing that all music has in common. Dynamics are what bind all forms of music together. Dynamics can transform a group of sounds into a piece of music.

It might sound like I have a boner for dynamics, but seriously—think about the most experimental song you know. Maybe ambient noise music? Or drone music like SunnO))) (yes that’s a real name)? These songs defy our expectations in that they have little semblance of melody, tonality, or rhythm—all things we value greatly in our traditional interpretation of music. But what makes them enjoyable to some is their dynamics. The noises created still have peaks and valleys in volume that are used for artistic effect.

Here’s a quick example of what I’m talking about. Take a song I’ve discussed previously, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” You know the part where the guy with the high voice sings “For meeeee!!!” and then the entire band comes crashing in from the relative silence before it and there’s that guitar riff? Even those that are sick of the song can’t help but nod their head when that section finally arrives. That moment is so memorable and entertaining because of dynamics. After a section that is almost entirely a cappella, the music builds and then the entire band suddenly enters, playing a heavy rock riff. All of the tricks that of structure and volume fluctuation that the band used to get you to feel that rush of excitement in that moment is what I’m talking about when I say “dynamics.”

Or even the aforementioned “4’33” uses dynamics in its complete absence of volume. It might be a stretch, but the song still brings emotions (albeit not always positive ones) out of many of its listeners by playing with our expectations.

Given all that, I think it’s fair to say that dynamics are the one thing that all music shares across its extremely vast and varied landscape of genres. All music from all cultures, all genres, and all levels of obscurity can be evaluated and discussed based on their dynamics, and what all music has in common is the artist using volume to create a listener response.

I don’t think I’m overstating things by placing dynamics higher than other aspects of music. Let’s talk about Goosebumps. No, not the spooky horror books (but did you read Say Cheese and Die? Scary shit). I’m talking about the actual phenomenon where your hairs stand up and you get weird bumps on your skin from just listening to a great song.

Goosebumps are pretty much the ultimate response to music. You can’t do much better than a song being so good it actually physically affects your body with visible results. That is pretty powerful stuff. And dynamics in music have been scientifically proven to be connected to dynamic shifts. It’s a leftover survival technique where a sudden change in volume in a certain frequency in a song can be so unexpected (in a good way), that your body interprets it as a fight-or-flight kind of situation. Your body releases dopamine and adrenaline, which then results in goosebumps, which cause our hairs to stand up. If we were to actually have fur, it would make us look larger to a potential predator. But instead it is a useless biological leftover that leaves our skin looking weird. It’s still pretty damn cool when it happens though.

Here’s something cool to try: listen to some of your favorite songs while only focusing on a single instrument. If the song is popular, you may be able to find an isolated track of your chosen instrument on Youtube. Most R&B and Hip-hop artists release instrumental and a capella tracks for their hit songs (a voice is an instrument too!) Try to single an instrument out and listen to how it supports the rest of the song. Try to understand its role in the group. I guarantee you’ll gain a new appreciation of a song that you may have once been tired of. You’ll definitely gain a new appreciation for the instrument you chose.

While that’s a fun thing to try, what I think is an even more interesting experiment is to listen to a song only for its dynamics like you might listen to a song for a single instrument. To try and tune out any kind of tonality or timbre and to only listen to the way a song’s volume fluctuates. This not only can be just as eye-opening as the single instrument experiment I mentioned above, in some cases it is absolutely necessary to understand a genre or song that may initially be off-putting.

I’m sure everyone out there in the internet has had their share of songs that their friends, family, or the general public love that they personally can’t stand. There’s nothing wrong with not enjoying a song, but for me, it can be frustrating to understand the appeal of something that connects with so many. I don’t think anyone has to force themselves to like anything, but being able to understand something and relate to others is never a negative thing in my mind. If you can learn to appreciate these new sounds and maybe even share that experience with others, even better.

This is where dynamics can come to the rescue. I’m confident that stripping away a song’s surface details will reveal a chewy center of understanding that will allow you to better wrap your head around its appeal. 

Take one of the most popular ambient noise artists, Merzbow. The average listener might react to this by saying something like “It’s noise. It hurts my ears. What’s the point? What’s wrong with you, Andy?” And the average listener wouldn’t be wrong. But there is something to appreciate in the song’s dynamics. Which, in contrast to its harsh aesthetics, are actually quite gentle. If you can learn to tolerate the song’s ear-piercing white noise, Merzbow can be calming, almost meditative in the way it flows from one section to the next dynamically.

Next time you’re having trouble getting into a new genre, give that dynamics trick a try. Listen to how the genre plays with volume, and ask yourself how that makes you feel. Why did the artists decided to do that? How do these changes in volume support the emotion of the song? Ask yourself how the song uses dynamics, and how the listener might be able to appreciate these tactics, and you’ll most likely start to understand the appeal. To me, that’s an invaluable tool in music appreciation, discussion, and criticism. It’s changed the way I evaluate music.

But getting back to that John Lennon quote I may have made up. I do agree that silence can act as an additional member of any group or artist. Or a different way I like to put it: Dynamics are the instrument of the songwriter.

Long story short—dynamics are important. They affect us on a deeper, primal level, and it’s time we start to acknowledge them.

Drummer lion

Part 2: So What’s the Problem?

What’s disappointing is that dynamics are practically absent from most mainstream music discussion. Usually in favor of words about aesthetic artistic choices. Sure, someone’s voice, guitar tone, or the general atmosphere is interesting, but I believe dynamics are what connect us to a song in the long term.

Dynamics can be what gives a song lasting power or what makes us sick of it after several playthroughs. Dynamic choices are what make whole genres or eras of music sound stale and cheesy in hindsight. Due to a lack of discussion and understanding, dynamics and structure are completely entrenched in genre. Artists act like genre and dynamics are inseparable. When you hear a mainstream dubstep song, for example, you know you are going to hear a softer verse that suddenly explodes in a heavy, syncopated bass drop. Dubstep doesn’t normally stray from that formula, and thus, some people have already become tired of it after their initial excitement wears off. Or a rock song will most likely follow a verse/chorus/bridge format where a softer verse leads to a repeating, louder chorus. Artists who are remembered for being important and influential are those who can change up the formula in a way that makes sense given the emotion and tone of their music.

A similar thing happens with artists that come on the scene with a fresh, new sound. Once you’ve heard enough of their songs, their dynamic structure becomes predictable. They either continue making songs with the same structure, or they drastically change things, which ends up alienating people when the band does not meet their expectations.

But mainly, it comes back to the larger idea of emotional tone and theme that I discussed in earlier articles. Music is so much stronger when it focuses on particular emotions or themes. And as dynamics are so closely tied with emotion in music, it feels disingenuous when a band continues to use the same formula for songwriting over and over. It’s a clear indicator that the songwriter is no longer serving the emotion of the song and the tone it is conveying, but rather following a previously successful formula.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that every song has to be a completely personal artistic expression. In fact, music has always had a long history of being commissioned. Some of music’s most seminal artists—from Bach to Mozart—all wrote music at the request of higher-ranking officials. Tons of outstanding pop music has been created by professional songwriters—people who are hired because of their skill in creating a piece of music that connects with a wide audience. That is a great thing, and it empowers talented songwriters and musicians to reach multitudes of listeners.

For me, there’s no distinction when it comes to whether music is personal or whether it is written for an expressed purpose. What makes music great is how well it can convey an emotion to the listener. The disconnect between dynamics and emotion is where many modern songs fail to become great works of art.

If those who write music were only more aware of the dynamic constraints of their respective genres, we might have more music that is less derivative and that can stay true to its emotional core. If more artists were creating music that didn’t as neatly fit into a recognizable, marketable genre, we might have even more examples of truly timeless work, rather than art dictated by well-trodden trends. And the first step towards these goals is discussing and understanding how dynamics are used.

Let’s go into more detail by using some concrete examples of dynamics in action. The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” is the perfect example to do so.

Part 3: Listen All Y’all 

Please watch the youtube ad in its entirety, it will help defray the huge cost of fake mustaches for this video.

Given how music is typically discussed, with a focus on melody, musicianship, and genre, “Sabotage” is a song that simply should not exist. It should by no means be a huge hit.

But it is. It’s definitely stood the test of time so far. If J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is to be believed, we’ll still be enjoying this song on our hoverbikes while riding around in the desert far into the future.

Not that melody isn’t wonderful—I love a well-written melody more than anything—but “Sabotage” proves that it isn’t necessary for a song to connect with people. “Sabotage” is a practically atonal song and has done just fine for itself.

But not quite atonal, though. The song does utilize guitar and bass, both of which play part of an A flat/B sharp kind of chord. They slam on these couple notes for the entire song with pretty much no tonal variation. The notes they play are used for their percussive quality rather than for any kind of melodic purpose.

If someone wrote out sheet music for the song, it would look like whatever is between “awfully boring” and “straight-up awful” to someone who had never heard the song. It has no melody, no variations in tempo, and every instruments part repeats dozens of times. Which is what makes the song such an effective demonstration of what I’m talking about. The song’s dynamics are 100% responsible for the connection many people have to it.

“Sabotage” is successful because the Beastie Boys were able to support the emotional tone of their song through dynamics. But what is the emotional tone of the song? Well, it’s one that everyone can relate to. It’s about outside forces, like say, “The Man,” bringing you down. It’s a song that replicates that frustration.

By carefully taking dynamic influences from hip-hop, hard-rock, punk, and pop, the Beastie Boys were able to create a song that captures this frustration in an honest way.

They took a huge risk in creating a mostly atonal pop song, but they also took a huge risk in that the song’s only source of dynamics is “layering.” Think back to the experiment we did where you listened closely to a single instrumental layer in a song. If you were listening to either the drums or vocals, you may have noticed that given the section or phrase, the instrument would fluctuate in volume. Drums are usually relegated to this position in modern bands. They have the enormous responsibility of creating different dynamic effects, such as crescendos, tension, release, or just good ole fashioned increases in volume. Other instruments sometimes help out, but drums are usually doing the heavy lifting.

This is not the case in “Sabotage.” There are five things making noise on this track: bass, drums, guitar, vocals, and turntables. Each of these five instruments is either playing as loud as they possibly can, or not playing at all. They all serve a binary function of being collectively “off” or “on,” rather than individually fluctuating in volume depending on their context within the song. The way the band layers these elements is how they allow dynamic variance and movement to occur.

As a punk-band-turned-hip-hop-group, the Beastie Boys are able to channel the dynamics of their influences in this layering aspect, as this is what many songs in both genres share. Due to its use of samples, hip-hop’s form of dynamics comes about through the layering of different samples and vocals. Punk’s in-your-face attitude and simple instrumental parts mean the musicians are often playing as loudly as possible, so dynamics can only change when instruments are omitted in different parts of the song. This obviously is a huge generalization for both genres, but typically, they use layering. The Beastie Boys were creative enough to understand the dynamic structure of these two very disparate genres in order to create a song that straddles genres in both its approach to dynamics and through its emotional themes.

On a more structural level, the song keeps things extremely basic, with the song jumping from a quieter, instrumental section, to a louder verse section that adds vocals. Each section lasts about 8 bars.

The band keeps this from getting tedious by altering which instruments are playing during the instrumental portion. After the initial build-up and the first verse, the instrumental portion at 0:40 features bass and drums with the turntable scratching and screeching on top. In the next instrumental section at 1:03, however, the turntable is gone, and the guitar is featured on top of the looping drum part.

The structure almost works out like a math problem. 3 instruments (of the total 4) play during the instrumental break, which then changes to 4 for the more intense verse. This back and forth exchange repeats three times until everyone drops out but the bass. Then, for the big cathartic climax, all 5 instruments come at once. They mix things up a bit for the “Listen all y’all…” bridge, and then a final verse winds things down. Overall, it’s a very simple formula.

Notice how the band showed restraint by not putting all 5 instruments on top of each other until the goosebump-inducing moment of the climax. Also, notice how the juxtaposition of the solitary bass-line against the multi-layered crescendo makes the climax all that much more effective by comparison.

And on the subject of that climax, the reason it is so successful in being a “goosebump moment” is not only because of the song’s structure and careful use of layering, but because of the emotional content of the song. For a track all about frustration, what better way to demonstrate this than releasing that frustration with a scream? It’s catharsis at its best. Not only has the entire song been building up that moment dynamically and structurally, the emotion is reinforced by this song’s use of typically rebellious and frustrated genres. It’s this overall cohesiveness that makes “Sabotage” so acclaimed.

That primal release of a scream is replicated at the beginning of each verse portion of the song. Listen to how the intro of the song builds with bass, guitar, and a staccato drum line until vocalist Ad-Rock busts in with an extended scream of the word “I” at 0:17, leading you into the first verse. It is effective in a similar way to the song’s cathartic climax. It’s like Ad-Rock is so fed up and frustrated, he can’t help but shout something out before the verse actually starts. The same thing happens with his shouting of  “so, so, so” at 0:50 before the second verse, or his strange “bwaaa” at 1:14 before verse 3. These vocal choices demonstrate how small dynamic changes such as these can do so much to contribute to a song’s overall emotion feel.

“Sabotage” is about rebellion, as mentioned before. The lyrical themes discuss the various ways the narrator feels oppressed and frustrated. But on a larger scale, the song reinforces its rebellious themes by combining punk and hip-hop, and keeping things simple and accessible through structure. Its success is the ultimate “fuck you” to the authority the song is decrying. The Beastie Boys connected with the general public on their own terms.

Looking forward, I think “Sabotage” will remain popular because it provides audiences with something that they crave, yet get so little of—dynamics used in an emotionally charged fashion. Dynamics are so completely attached to genre that when an artist is able to create something that exists outside of these restraints, yet still makes thematic sense, listeners will eat it up.

The first step towards allowing more influential songs like this to happen is being aware of and discussing the way artists really use volume in their music. I’ve only scratched the surface here.

So next time you have a few minutes, do this old chunk of coal a favor. Listen to any song, but instead of listening to that cool guitar solo, or the interesting inflection in the vocalist’s voice, or the cool piano part in that sample, think about how dynamics are being used. Does the song ever catch you off guard with a change in volume? What’s the overall structure of the song’s different sections? And most importantly—what is the point of the dynamics in the song? How do they make you feel?? Do they support the emotions of the song, or are they adhering to the genre’s format? Am I starting to sound like an insane person?

So yeah, did anything interesting pop up? Did you hear a song that had dynamics of note?? Let me know why don’t you?! Let’s talk about music or whatever!!

Thank you so much for reading.
You rule.


PS I almost was able to make every clip art image in this article a picture of a rabbit drumming but that one .gif of the lion playing steel drums was too good to pass up. Please accept my sincerest apologies for not sticking to the theme.

Also, if you enjoyed that article, check out the other ones in this series why don’t you. Click on these words down here if you like cool clip arts and music words.

Notes on Notes: Seasonal Songs

Notes on Notes: Soul and Solos

Notes on Notes: An In-Depth Analysis of Bohemian Rhapsody

Notes on Notes: It’s Time to Change the Way We Talk About Music