The Amazing Piano Crescendo
The piano crescendo. It is a basic and universal musical concept, one of those phrases that has drifted out of the realm of music and into the everyday lexicon to describe anything that is building, increasing, gathering momentum. The concept (getting louder) is easy enough for beginners to grasp in their first lessons, yet accomplished artists expend a great deal of energy and effort trying to bring the piano crescendo to a refined perfection. In the following essay, Rozalie Levant explores some of the common mistakes that are made with crescendi, and she offers some fresh solutions and ideas for approaching this ever-present symbol.
Problems with piano crescendo
The seemingly simple concept of the piano crescendo—a gradual growth of tone volume—often translates into forceful, excessively loud sonorities and disobedient fingers.
Ironically, two essential characteristics of piano crescendo, when taken too literally, are the reasons for its incorrect implementation. These characteristics are:
(1) the definition of piano crescendo, referring to a gradual dynamic growth
(2) the ability of the graphic sign for piano crescendo to appear in various sizes, suggesting the involvement of any amount of notes
The relationship among the notes in any musical measure resists the idea of a gradual increase in tone volume. The notes in a phrase cannot grow gradually because they possess unequal tone volume, prior to any dynamic growth. Similar to accented and non-accented syllables in a verbal sentence, certain notes in a measure are more dynamically powerful: there are louder, heavier notes, and other less significant, softer notes.
Understanding fat and skinny notes in the piano crescendo
One way to envision the dynamic inequality of notes is to examine what I call “fat” and “skinny” notes. The first group includes notes on the downbeat, longer notes, and notes that begin beats that also contain shorter notes. The rest are “skinny” notes—those on the upbeats, shorter notes, and the notes that fall within beats.
If we look at intonation in verbal speech, we see that the non- accented syllables in a word cannot exceed the dynamic range of the syllables that have a natural stress. The natural emphasis of certain syllables create what are, in essence, pre-existing dynamic conditions. For example, try to pronounce “The strawberries and raspberries were great” with a truly gradual increase of volume on each and every syllable from beginning to end. The sentence will quickly start to sound like nonsense! Likewise, the skinny notes, even those in a piano crescendo, cannot sound louder than the preceding fat notes. Subordination of the skinny notes to the fat notes is a dynamic reality of musical speech, which must be preserved at all times.
The problem with pre-existing dynamic conditions in a musical measure is not settled by just the recognition of dynamic differences between fat and skinny notes. Both dynamic groups—fat and skinny notes—are capable of migrating from one category to the other. The fat note becomes skinny, or soft, when finishing a diminuendo phrase. Many fat notes also have to be removed from their class of fellow louder notes with an increase in speed. In these situations, the distances between fat notes shrink, and a high concentration of fat notes may chop the melody, jeopardizing its free flow. Running along with other notes in a fast musical passage, fat notes unregretfully lose weight when a pianist wants them to sound light, and these notes thus effortlessly replenish the skinny population.
While moving the fat notes into the skinny category benefits the free flow of the musical stream, attempts by skinny notes to be upgraded to the rank of fat notes can badly damage the musical development. It seems like fat and skinny notes represent opposite personalities. The fat notes are benevolent – they easily obey the pianists’s will and do not mind a loss of dynamic power. The skinny notes, on the other hand, demonstrate tireless efforts to become something that they are not in a selfish need to attract attention, even if their actions ruin a musical phrase.
The prestigious birthplaces of the fat notes (such as downbeats) do not let the “skinnies,” which often originate from the rural quarters of weaker beats, attain their dynamic ambitions. It is truly amazing how the desire of “skinny” notes to become audible, noticeable, and remarkable results in penetration of unwanted loudness practically everywhere, despite the will of the pianist. If the performer does not vigilantly and scrupulously examine the dynamic level of each and every skinny note, the rebellious society of skinnies will destroy the natural arrangement of loudness and softness in a measure or phrase. This excessive loudness can permeate the upbeats, the notes preceding and following fat notes, the shorter notes within a beat, and consolidated groups of skinny notes.
There is, however, one specific situation where skinny notes have the legal right to sound loud. These are loud phrases having piano crescendo marks in them. The skinny notes, though slightly softer than the fat ones, will sound loud in such a phrase, and they can unfortunately make the phrase chopped and forceful. A solution to this problem comes from the realm of technique. When playing loud skinny notes in a forte phrase with a piano crescendo, the pianist has to imagine that the fingers do not press each key vertically down, but rather peel off the top layer of the key in a horizontal direction, energetically pulling it towards the goal note of the crescendo. This does not mean a shallow touch—the finger still reaches for the point of double escapement. The feeling of a horizontal pull of the melody changes the speed of application of the arm’s weight. This adjustment influences the actions of the piano mechanism and results in a substantial, yet flowing sound that does not stop the flow of the melody.
An arithmetic approach to the piano crescendo
The predominance of the skinny notes in a phrase (especially at a fast tempo), along with a necessity to suppress their eagerness to be promoted to the status of fat notes, necessitates a search for reliable notes that are capable of building a proper piano crescendo. Certainly these should be the fat notes. The often insignificant number of them in a phrase, however, along with their decrease in quantity when tempo increases, can leave us with a relatively small population of fat notes. So what is an optimal and efficient number of notes for making an effective piano crescendo?
A simple test regarding this matter produces a quite unexpected result: pressing one key several times, increasing the dynamic level of its sound with each stroke, one finds that it takes just five strokes to rise from the softest to the loudest sound. Even six notes of audibly different degree of tone volume make the phrase unnaturally forceful. Therefore, despite the visual expansion of the piano crescendo manifested by its graphic sign, the real difference is created by a maximum of five (and minimum of two) notes.
Six strategies for building a piano crescendo
Keeping in mind the pre-existing inequality of fat and skinny notes and the strong limit on the number of notes necessary for a piano crescendo, we can create different arrangements of these notes, depending upon the shape, tempo, length, and expressive needs of the phrase. These arrangements achieve the impression of gradual dynamic growth without inflicting aesthetic damage upon the music.
Skeleton and Shadow: I categorize different combinations of fat and skinny notes into six different types of piano crescendo. The most frequently used is a “Skeleton” piano crescendo, and it works for melodies with a wavy shape. We choose up to five fat notes (distant from each other) that form the melodic skeleton, and gradually increase the tone volume from one of them to the next. Skinny notes, meanwhile, are building a “Shadow” piano crescendo, resembling the shape of growing fat notes. If the second fat note is louder than the previous one, the skinny notes following the second fat note are slightly louder than the skinnies following the previous fat note.
We are actually creating two crescendi: a major one, built by the fat notes, and a supplemental shadow crescendo comprised of skinny notes. This crescendo sounds smooth and solid, despite being double-layered and having many notes.
Crescendo with Zero: The next type, “Piano Crescendo with Zero,” is used for a specific psychological effect when a performer demonstrates a very intense emotional effort, which is then suddenly abandoned.
Wavy: Quite often, large melodic spaces are filled with many smaller crescendi and diminuendi. When several mini-crescendi are gradually growing, delivering the impression of one big crescendo, then such a crescendo is termed a “Wavy” (or “Stuffed”) crescendo.
Silent: The final type of piano crescendo in the artist’s palette paradoxically has no dynamic growth whatsoever. That is why it is termed the “Silent” crescendo. This crescendo conveys the strong emotional effort of the pianist to soak a motionless note with intense and increasing energy and seemingly propel the note towards the next one by the sheer force of imagination and will. The “Silent” crescendo fills all the gaps in a fabric of music: rests, spaces between the phrases, and long notes. This type of piano crescendo is one of the pianist’s most valuable devices, as it is capable of creating and maintaining a precious quality of musical continuity.
Energy: Although it is not the focus of this article, I must point out that the concept of inner energy (my favorite topic) is vital in designing not just the “Silent” crescendo, but all of the crescendi that have been described here. Only inner intensity gives expressivity to the crescendo. It soaks not only the climactic notes of the piano crescendo, but also the garlands of skinny notes, compensating for their lack of growth in tone volume. Inner energy fills in the shell of a crescendo the way ice cream fills a waffle cone. The bigger the cone, the larger the amount of ice cream required. The more dramatic and powerful an increase of tone volume is, the more inner intensity the artist has to apply. Inner energy is also a critical component of micro time delays that can precede the goal notes of each and every piano crescendo.
Conclusion of the piano crescendo
After examining these special arrangements of dynamically unequal fat and skinny notes, the question remains as to whether a gradual piano crescendo even exists. Yes, it does—for two notes in a fast tempo and up to five notes in a slower tempo. In the latter case, each longer note fades, becoming softer as if it were tied to a row of tapering skinny notes of the same pitch.
In summary, we can conclude that the basic piano crescendo is just an idea. Its practical execution requires at least six different designs: Skeleton, Shadow, Martini Glass, Crescendo with Zero, Wavy (or Stuffed), and the Silent crescendo. All of them make an impression of gradual growth of tone volume without damaging the preexisting uneven dynamic landscape. More can be learned from my book – The Anatomy of Musicality