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Topic: Real-world dynamics

  1. #1

    Real-world dynamics

    After getting GPO set up with a Gina3G sound card, studio monitors, and a new powerful computer, I decided to try it out by using Sibelius to play back an orchestral piece that I have heard performed by three different orchestras. Having spent hundreds of hours playing in an orchestra and having heard several hours of my music played by orchestras, I thought I would offer some practical advice concerning dynamics.

    I have seen some discussion here of arriving at dynamic percentages by dividing 127 by approximately 7 (from about 19% for ppp to 100% for fff), but the dynamics that result are unlikely to coincide with those of real performances. Sibelius's default percentages (from 34% for ppp to 100% for fff) are much closer to the real world.

    Mozart only used three dynamic markings, p, f, and fp. The next generation added pp, mf, and ff. So we have very soft, soft, medium, loud, and very loud. A least one book on orchestration suggests that these five levels are all the basic levels that orchestral musicians recognize, since medium soft and medium loud are basically the same (and indeed mp doesn't show until much later than mf). fff and ppp don't show up until Berlioz.

    In the real world fff is a dangerous marking because brass players often take this as license to push their instruments to levels that create a brassy, somewhat vulgar sound. (OK, if you want that.) And ppp suggests a barely perceptible level, yet all instruments have a limit to how softly they can play and still produce a sound, so the real-world dynamic range is narrower than the 19% to 100% scale would suggest.

    The lowest level possible gets complicated. No oboe player can play C4 as softly as a clarinetist, and no woodwind player can play C4 as loudly as a trombone player. And there are some strange phenomena -- for example, a string section can play both louder and softer than a single player (there are sound acoustic and technical reasons for this).

    After much debate in the 1970s, a notation conference held in Ghent, Belgium decided that the notation of dynamics in scores should be absolute, even though everyone knew that the first trumpet's ff was louder than the first bassoon's. The reasoning was that somebody (the conductor) needed to be able to look at the score and make sense of the markings. Thus the conductor could know that marking the trumpet one dynamic level lower than the horns indicated that the trumpet was truly supposed to be softer than the horns, and was not an attempt to make them come out the same. (With relative dynamics chaos develops. Some trumpet players can play much louder than others -- how would you compensate for that in marking a score? And how could the conductor know what you really wanted?)

    Thus in notating a score, you need to mark it so that the score reveals the balances that you want to achieve. In rehearsal the conductor may need to tell certain players to play louder or softer in order to achieve this. But in using GPO playback, you may need to set MIDI playback levels that are different from the notated dynamic symbols. (Beware if too much of this is required because you may be asking the impossible of the performer. I once saw a Webern score that asked a soprano to sing a B6 pp, and some performer had written in the margin "Yeah, right.")

    My main concern is that people might get used to an unrealistic dynamic range if they use the 19% to 100% scale. When I used this scale to playback the orchestral piece I mentioned via MIDI, the first comment my wife made was that the dynamic range was too large. She is not a musician, but she immediately recognized that the range of dynamics she was hearing was different from what she had heard in live performance.


  2. #2

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    Hey Randy, I can add my two cents to that as a harpist in an orchestra:

    For most harpists, it's sort of a joke when you see your orchestra part marked "pp" (or even "p" or "mp") and the rest of the ensemble is playing with you at that point in the score... my old teacher said in moments like that, since you don't want the conductor to glare at you in the rehearsal and yell "harp?!" because he can't hear you, you play A GOOD STRONG FORTE. Kind of all the time, in fact, unless you're actually soloing. Sort of your default dynamic.

    The point, I think, is that many composers mark dynamics as "esthetic indications" of what they're hearing in their heads, as opposed to ACTUAL practical requests of the players. They write "fff" for brass players because they (the composers) are hearing a big exciting passage in their heads -- they're not actually thinking of what "fff" means to an actual trombonist sitting in the pit (for whom "fff" is an italian phrase meaning, roughly, "let 'er rip"). Similarly, they write "pp" for the harp in a quiet section because they're thinking "ooh, harp, mellow, soft, moody." So I've learned to listen to the composition as a whole and try to translate as best I can what the composer's OVERALL aim is (as best I can tell, anyway!).
    Steve Main

  3. #3

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    I can't add anything to this, accept to say that I have found this really helpful, thanks. Right now, I am trying to improve the realism of my GPO performances so this discussion has come at the right time.

  4. #4

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    I once saw a Webern score that asked a soprano to sing a B6 pp, and some performer had written in the margin "Yeah, right.")
    LOL. As a flutist, I've come across the occasional 'f' in a passage written in the lowest fifth of the instrument in some of the shows I've played. While the trumpets were playing, no less.


    The little voices in my head are singing four-part harmony.

  5. #5

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    Thank you for the tip! It is really helpful. My scores in Overture are all messed up, which isn't that bad since I don't think they will be performed any time soon. But if they were, I'd definitely have to go back and rework the dynamics of it. It's probably one of those issues that comes about from technology being so nice, and we can orchestrate music in unrealistic ways on our computer. It's also nice to have some orchestration books handy to remind you what a real instrument can and can't do.
    Sean Patrick Hannifin
    My MP3s | My Melody Generator | my album
    "serious music" ... as if the rest of us are just kidding

  6. #6

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    If you send either a live performance CD or MIDI realization to a conductor, they frequently listen to them passively (I've heard them discuss doing it while having their morning coffee or driving to work). They might adjust the volume once or not at all. So if you use a dynamic range larger than what they are used to, either the softs will seem too soft or the louds too loud, and it won't seem "real" to them.

    The more exaggerated it sounds, the move likely they are to question the amount of real-world experience that you've had, and, consequently, whether or not the score is "playable." By "playable" I mean a score that comes together in rehearsal without the conductor having to constantly stop the orchestra to fix balances. (Some things cannot be fixed, like a low flute part in a loud tutti -- no one will hear it, period.) Anything that stops the rehearsal wastes precious, expensive rehearsal time and frustrates the performers.


  7. #7

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    Thanks for all the info randy_s!

    I mouse mix because my keyboard playing is pretty much non-existent. Something I do with dynamics is base my mod wheel settings in a generic way: 25-50=p; 50-75=mp/mf; 75-100=f. I vary from instrument to instrument, depending on the playing capabilities. The strings for example, I will extend the Mod wheel settings down to 0. I try to make sure the instruments balance within the family, make sure the woodwinds make sense together, the brass, etc, listening through speakers and headphones.
    Even after I have recorded everything out I still have to tweak the audio to get the correct balance, particularly if there are solos, etc...

    Something else I do to get the best grasp of dynamics is to listen to recordings that are similarly styled to the music I'm working on. To bad you can't search through amazon by recording engineer.

    Excellent point, stmain, regarding dynamics being aesthetic indications. That is a wonderful explanation.

  8. #8

    Re: Real-world dynamics


    This is a GOOD thread!!!!!!!!!

    The advantage of being electronic composers is that you can make the dynamics exactly how you want them reguardless of what marking you put in your notation program/sequencer. it's all about the final result--a mere waveform. But if you were to have a real orchestra perform this, then yes, I think the 'asthedical markings' theory will prove very effective. Very nice idea! In orchestra rehersal my conductor is always complaining about dynamics. He beleives that the marked dynamics should be for each instrument and not relative. I say that a dynamic is not a mere volume marking, but a style marking. My conductor always gets upset when the oboe has a solo marked pp while the rest of the orchestra also has pp. If the part were marked f, then the oboist would interpret that as a more aggressive, strong sound--maybe. Like it was mentioned, different players and conductors interpret dynamic markings in different ways. I just think it's a heck of a lot easier to burn a CD.

    My $.04 (to compensate for stupid inflation )


  9. #9

    Re: Real-world dynamics

    Fascinating Thread !!
    In some of his later operas,Verdi wrote ppppp markings in the strings.Why???Because he didn't trust the section at La Scala,not to drown out the singers.
    I will never forget what I learned in my first conducting lesson,...it is a quote from R.Strauss...."Never look too encouragingly at the French Horns"....
    AS a composer I should be preaching the sacredness of the text....but real life just ain't like that.An awful lot of contemporary orchestral music sounds like a wind band concert.Reason ??? lack of rehearsal time.!!
    Really good players balance themselves when they get to know a piece,but most modern stuff gets an hour and a half rehearsal and 1 performance,and then Nada...Also many composers cut their teeth on wind band writing and when they come to write for Full orchestra,they show their inexperience at balancing the whole thing.
    Which is why GPO is an invaluable tool/

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