How to Utilize Terraced Dynamics in Your Playing

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I’m Robert Estrin, and this is LivingPianos.com. The subject today is about how to utilize terraced dynamics. What are terraced dynamics, and why do they even exist? Well, this is a great question. I’m going to show you a couple of examples of how you can use terraced dynamics to great effect in your music!

Terraced dynamics are usually associated with Baroque music.

The piano has infinite expression from soft to loud. The keyboard instruments that were most popular during the Baroque era, Bach, Handel, Telemann, Scarlatti, et cetera, were the harpsichord, the clavichord, the virginal, and the pipe organ. These instruments, unlike the piano, did not respond to the speed at which the keys were depressed or the force of pressing the keys. But many of these instruments had stops, particularly organs and some harpsichords, where you could engage different series of pipes or, with the harpsichord, different sets of strings. The only way to achieve a crescendo, getting louder gradually, was by opening up more pipes or allowing more strings to get plucked on a harpsichord. Because a crescendo was impossible on those instruments. For example, listen to Bach’s Two part Invention in C Major. You have a statement of the initial subject that repeats again and again. You’ll notice how it gets louder each time it is played. This is an example of terraced dynamics. You get the sense of a crescendo even though it’s stepped, like a terrace, with different levels of dynamics. It’s so effective in music of the Baroque era, because the music was conceived that way. Bach couldn’t have thought of an actual crescendo in this music because the instruments he was playing didn’t have that capability.

Are terraced dynamics ever effective in other styles of music?

The answer is yes! For example, the Kuhlau Sonatina Opus 55, Number 1. This is a delightful little piece, incidentally. There is a section where the initial subject returns in D minor. Then you have a sequence that I love to play with terraced dynamics. It is very effective! So terraced dynamics are not just for Baroque music. Anytime you have a repeated pattern, it’s usually going somewhere musically, either up or down. You can give it direction and vitality with terraced dynamics. It articulates the actual architecture of the music because it’s written sequentially. To play it sequentially with terraced dynamics, rather than just a crescendo or decrescendo, is much more appropriate. This is true not just with Baroque music where it’s obvious because of the nature of the instruments that the music was written for, but even in later styles of music. It’s a great thing to try out! Any place in your score where you have repeated patterns, experiment with terraced dynamics and see what it does for your music! Let me know how it works for you!

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4 thoughts on “How to Utilize Terraced Dynamics in Your Playing”

    1. The opening theme of this Chopin Waltz repeats a step lower, and playing the repetition quieter makes sense, but that isn’t much of a terrace with only 2 levels! Later in the Waltz there are more extended repetitions of patterns, but they develop in a way that is a bit too complex to accommodate strict terrace dynamics.

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