How to Vary Your Harmonica’s Volume with Dynamics

By Winslow Yerxa

Once you have some practice with projection, it’s time to start thinking about dynamics, the changes in loudness that can make your harmonica playing more colorful. You can vary your volume by tapering gradually between soft and loud volumes or by suddenly changing your dynamic level with dramatic contrasts.

Dynamics and musical terms

Musicians use a set of Italian words to indicate volume:

  • Piano: Abbreviated with a bold, italicized p, “piano” means soft or quiet. A musical passage marked with a p below its first note should be played softly.

  • Pianissimo: This means extremely quiet. The quieter a note or phrase is to be played, the more p’s are strung together, as in pp or ppp or even pppp.

  • Forte: This means “strong,” so a note or passage marked forte or simply f is to be played loudly.

  • Fortissimo: This means as strong as possible, so a passage marked ff or fff or even ffff is to be played extremely loudly.

  • Mezzo: This just means “middling,” so a marking of mf means sort of loud, while mp means sort of quiet. Unlike the extremes, the middle ground isn’t given to multiples of m — you’ll never see mmmf or mmmp. But then being out on the extreme edges is always more exciting than being somewhere in the middle.

  • Crescendo: From a word meaning “to grow,” a crescendo is where you increase the loudness gradually.

  • Decrescendo: The opposite of crescendo, a decrescendo decreases the loudness gradually. The sleeping baby exercise is really an extended decrescendo.

Now you know some sophisticated words you can toss around for loud and quiet. Instead of yelling, “Hey, can you keep it down?” you can whisper, “Please, dear friends, pianissimo . . . ” Works like a charm in a crowded bar!

Gradually changing your volume

Try this harmonica exercise to help you gradually change your volume. You start very quietly, then increase your volume as you play the note, and then taper off to a quiet finish.

This exercise requires a long, sustained breath that lasts from six to eight beats at a slow-ish tempo. If you’re playing on an exhaled breath, make sure to take a deep breath before you start. If you’re playing it on an inhaled breath, empty some air from your lungs before you start.

When you get louder, you crescendo, indicated by the symbol < under the music. When you get quieter, you decrescendo, indicated by the symbol >.

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Making sudden dynamic changes

You can make a dramatic gesture if you play a melodic phrase loudly and then follow it by playing the next phrase at a much softer volume. Try playing this harmonica exercise that alternates loud phrases with soft ones and following the dynamic markings that appear below the tab. When you do this, the contrast in dynamics has a dramatic effect.

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