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Music & Fiction - Dynamics

“These go to eleven.” So says Nigel Tufnel, lead guitarist for Spinal Tap. It’s a classic line that even folks who have not seen Rob Reiner’s cult film will know. And if you don’t, and can’t quite deduce the rather inherent meaning, it’s simply this: LOUDER!

Music & Fiction

Take a moment to click on the image above and watch the Youtube vid of this hilarious scene; even if you’ve seen it before, you deserve the laugh it’ll give you.

Now, what does this have to do with fiction? Well, it’s about dynamics, which is another way (in music) of describing volume. And so when we correlate that with writing, we can think about things like intensity and action vs. calmness and introspection. Before diving into specific examples, let’s go a level deeper on what dynamics means.

The term itself helps to describe movement in music, contrast and changing states (defined primarily by volume) that produce motion and emotion in sound. You can probably call to mind songs that move in and out of loud, bombastic sections, interleaved by soft (less busy) sections. A good musician will use dynamics to create a sense of action and, by turn, reflection, using loud and soft to color the sound. One of my favorite examples of this is “Voices” by Dream Theater; just click on the image below and listen to the song.

You can hear the volume and instrumentation changes at these time markers: 1:09, 2:43, and 5:04 (there’s a slow build or crescendo (we’ll talk more about that in a bit) after this last change). It’s fairly obvious with this example to see how dynamics can be used to provide real mood and even storytelling change within a song. Softer parts, often with fewer instruments, lend themselves to an intimacy not achievable when the guitars are blazing; and inversely, when everything is cranked, the music can carry off anger, triumph, bombast, etc.

And it then becomes a fairly straightforward parallel to draw with fiction writing. What I mean is, in the context of a novel, in particular, a writer would tire his or her reader with ceaseless action. Even great thrillers like James Patterson’s Alex Cross books will have Alex sit at the piano here and there to play some soft jazz and think about things—these quiet moments are almost always ones of introspection. The other side of the coin is likewise true: An entire novel of a character simply sitting and thinking/reflecting, seems rather mundane to me as a reader.

The variation is what’s key. And that’s what dynamics is all about. Because, after all, isn’t that what life is actually like?

Now, in music there’s a set of notations that help the musician know how to interpret the music piece he or she is playing. It looks like this:

Abbrev.          Italian word     English meaning

pp                    pianissimo         very quiet
p                      piano                  quiet
mp                  mezzo piano      medium quiet
mf                   mezzo forte       medium loud 
f                       forte                    loud
ff                      fortissimo           very loud
cresc               crescendo          getting louder
dim                 diminuendo       getting quieter

And sudden changes in dynamics are notated by an s prefixing the new dynamic notation, and the prefix is called subito. Subito is Italian as are most other dynamic notations, and translates into "suddenly." For an easy reference of the above, have a listen to this: 

If you read the chart above, you realize you’ve been using the term piano all your life to refer to  the instrument. It’s actually short for pianoforte, which, of course, means soft-loud. The reason for this is that the piano was one of the first instruments recognized for having real dynamic range, as opposed to, say, the harpsichord, which you can play at only two volumes.

In addition, there are words used to indicate gradual changes in volume. The two most common are crescendo, sometimes abbreviated to cresc., meaning "get gradually louder"; and decrescendo or diminuendo, sometimes abbreviated to decresc. and dim. respectively, meaning "get gradually softer"—this is what I mentioned above as the slow build in the song “Voices” by Dream Theater. 

To bring us back around to fiction, think about say, an epic fantasy, where nations and realms are going to war. No doubt, there’ll be some battle scenes. These will be high-intensity scenes where wrath, fear, bloodlust and similar emotions rule; and where action is likely a mainstay. Often, though not always, these battle scenes are bookended by quiet, thoughtful moments where a king of soldier is reflecting on the day of war that will come with dawn; or he may be kneeling at a grave of comrades fallen after a day of battle. While an obvious example, it illustrates the shift in “volume” and the use of dynamics to tell story. Each of the scenes—battle and pre-battle—I describe can and should be taut with emotion, but those emotions are different, and the motion of the scene reflects as much. 


The above images depict that night before the battle I mentioned. And to extend the music/fiction relationship, we can think about how, in writing such a scene, the author would be emulating what in music is called sotto voce. I adore this notion in both music, and how it translates to fiction. “Sotto voce” is known as an undertone or hushed quality; it denotes a dramatic lowering of the volume. It can also, for a vocalist, be something that is whispered, or even “unvoiced”—something intimated without being spoken. A knowing writer will use italicized thoughts, a look or expression, description of setting and emotion to convey something quiet and introspective on the eve of conflict. And it all sets up real dynamics in the tale.

Scientists or engineers, when they talk about volume as relates music, will do so in terms of amplitude; and we’ve all heard the term decibel as a unit of measure for volume. When speaking, then, of dynamics, it’s important to recognize that interpreting the dynamic range and/or shift in a piece of music, one must understand it depends on several things:

  • Comparison with other dynamics in that same piece

  • The ability of the performer

  • The tradition of the music genre


Likewise, think about the corresponding influences on the dynamics of a story:

  • Comparison with the other dynamics in the same tale

  • The typical dynamic range/ability for the writer

  • The tradition of the literary genre one is writing in


There may be others, but you see my point. Dynamics in a thriller novel will, by definition, be different than those in a literary novel; a writer has to work at the ability to make use of ever wider shifts in dynamics in the story telling; and even within the same novel, how high/loud a scene is will have at least something to do with other highs in that same story.

But this idea of loud and soft in fiction doesn’t belong only to scene shifts. A writer has tools at his or her disposal to emphasize the relative volume of a paragraph, sentence, or even a single word. To tease out this very cool technique, consider that a composer may want a particular note to be louder than the rest, or may even want the beginning of a note to be loudest. To achieve this, the composer will use “accents”—written markings that are used to indicate these especially strong sounding notes. There are a few different types of written accents, but like dynamics, the proper way to perform a given accent will depend on several factors, e.g. the instrument playing it, the style and period of the music, etc. Some accents may even be played by making the note longer or shorter than the other notes, in addition to, or even instead of being, louder. Here are a few of those:


Common Accents


Caret-type accents are more likely to be used to mark shorter notes that should be stronger than unmarked notes.


So, the corollary in fiction could be seeing a particular line or word italicized. This is often meant to indicate interior monologue or character thoughts, which are usually “quieter.” Other times (though less often) you’ll see a word or phrase written in all caps—the literary equivalent of SHOUTING! Sometimes, too, something will be underlined, or set off by deeper indentation. And then, of course, punctuation itself can lend to the relative volume of words on the page. All of these things enhance the most obvious, which is the meaning of the words themselves, and what is being conveyed by the story. I simply mean to point out a writer can use form to influence the content with the previous tools I’ve mentioned.

The example that leaps to mind to illustrate this is actually not a written one, but from the sitcom “Friends.” Sorry gang, I did, in fact, spend my share of hours watching Mr. Chandler Bing, who I find rather comic. Click Matthew Perry’s pic below and see what I mean about “hitting” a single word in particular:


The salient point in this entire discussion of dynamics is to breathe life into your fiction with a change in volume. No one likes anything that drones. Well, I dig droning when it’s a bed of sound for bagpipes. Few things stir my sense of pride and desire to show valor more than listening to “Scotland the Brave” played on the pipes. Still, even in music there’s great discussion about how the music industry has gone too far with audio engineering to over-compress music performance in recording and mastering. To see what I mean, watch/listen to the following: I’ll admit that to some extent this is more easily heard by an audiophile. But what you find is that in an effort to compete for the consumer ear, record labels have compressed the music dynamics and then maximized the volume. If you listen closely, though, to some of your favorite songs on the radio that have soft/intimate parts as well as loud/bombastic parts, you’ll find that the volume doesn’t change. That’s compression, and ultimately, while there’s still a perception of dynamics, the true experience of dynamics is lost. That should bum you out.

Where fiction is concerned, I’ll say again, music can show a storyteller how a tale can ebb and flow in terms of emotional states and the use of action and introspection. Yeah, there are times you just want a three minute romp that’ll get your blood pumping; and at other times, the song you need is just a sad one, right? Fair enough. But unless you’re writing a poem or a piece of flash fiction, stories are usually going to call for a variety of moods. And novels, without question, will need this. So here, music—and dynamics, in particular—becomes a useful lens through which to see how we can take our readers on a journey. And for my money, other elements of music can do the same; you can check out my thoughts on melody, rhythm, harmony, tempo, etc, if you’re interested, to see how those parts of music may dial up your fiction.

Meantime, turn it up to eleven!

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