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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Best Strategies for Teaching Dynamics

The expressive elements of music are something I admittedly teach as an after-thought on many occasions. Obviously everyone knows the difference between loud and quiet, right?? Over my years of teaching, however, I have found that if I don't teach expressive elements consciously and regularly, it is difficult for students to perform expressively when I expect them to, even if they understand the idea conceptually. Today I am sharing my favorite ways to teach dynamics: identifying, performing, and creating with them, from kindergarten up through middle school.

It's worth noting that dynamics (and other expressive elements) are a key element addressed in the National Core Arts Standards for general music. As with many concepts, the expectations in the NCAS go beyond being able to demonstrate and identify dynamic contrast, or even using specific vocabulary and symbols- students are expected to understand how dynamics convey intent in a musical performance. That means it's not enough for students to be able to sing loudly and quietly, or to know that "forte" means loud. Students need to understand the importance of dynamic contrast in music, and be able to use it effectively as a creator and performer.

If you're starting to sweat a little, don't worry. I did too when I first read through the standards and realized how little time I had spent on the WHY of expressive elements. But what I've come to realize is that to develop that understanding, the best thing I can do is give students more opportunities to explore dynamics, from creating, performing, and responding perspectives, and take a minute to make that exploration conscious as they do so. And fostering this understanding for my students is valuable- they are much more perceptive creators, performers, and consumers of music, and their musicking is much more meaningful.

Still a little overwhelmed? Here are some of my favorite ways to get students responding, performing, and creating with dynamics.


The most fundamental step in understanding dynamics is identifying and responding to dynamic contrast. My favorite way to help students demonstrate and explore this is through movement.

1. Big and small 

While listening to a recording (or your own live performance) with dynamic contrast, have students respond to the dynamics they hear by spreading their body wide for loud sounds and scrunching up small for quiet sounds. They can also do a movement with the beat (like swaying their arms or walking) and make those movements bigger or smaller with the dynamics. 

2. Conducting

Students can practice the basics of conducting dynamics by spreading their arms out for loud and putting their hands close together for quiet. Then when they learn basic conducting patterns to show meter, they can practice doing those conducting patterns bigger and smaller to show dynamic contrast as well. 

3. Props

For some students nothing helps the concept "click" faster than a visual, and for dynamics I love stretchy bands. These are especially great for exploring crescendos and decrescendos because they show gradual expansion and contraction so perfectly! Have students show the music getting louder and softer by making the circle bigger or smaller while they listen to the music.

To connect these concepts to specific music vocabulary and symbols, I give students a set of visuals showing the words or symbols and have students point to, mark, or hold up the corresponding one: they can circle or write down the dynamics they hear on a paper, point to the one they hear on the board, or hold up the one they hear on separate sheets of paper.

To help students think critically about the purpose and impact of dynamics in music, I like using stories with younger students and circle discussions with the older grades.

4. Stories

There are lots of books that lend themselves to thinking about how different feelings are conveyed through various musical elements, but these are some of my favorites (click to read the full lesson plans):

5. Circle discussions

With older students, circle discussions can be a great way to get everyone talking about how dynamics can convey meaning and intent. Here is a detailed description, with some specific discussion prompts, of how to run effective circle discussions:


Of course one of the other fundamental components of understanding dynamics is performing with dynamic contrast. I often connect performance tasks with the movement tasks I described for responding to assess their understanding of each: I show bigger or smaller motions and have students respond by singing or playing instruments louder or softer to match, conduct bigger or smaller for students to follow with their performing, or point to a symbol or word on the board and have students sing or play at that dynamic level. 

One key element that I'm working to include more frequently is to take a minute after these performing activities to ask students which dynamic level they prefer for a particular song and why. It's a great way to get students used to the idea that different dynamic levels can convey different meanings and to start thinking critically about why and how that happens.

Of course this type of performing exploration can be added to basically any song or performance activity we're working on- I've even done it when we're practicing reading rhythm notation with 4-beat patterns on the board by having the class, or a group of students, perform the rhythm "forte" or "piano", etc to give them additional practice and get students to apply the rhythm reading to a more musical performance- but especially in the younger grades, I've found one of the best ways to explore performing dynamic contrast is through stories. Here is one example of a book I love to use to explore loud and quiet (click to read the full lesson plan):


One of the best ways to assess student understanding of dynamics and their importance in expressive music making is to use them in composition! This is the area I have been focusing on adding more regularly to my lessons, especially in the younger grades. Giving students the opportunity to create with dynamics is actually very simple- it's really just a matter of letting students choose which dynamic level they want to hear and then evaluating those choices.

Sometimes in lower grades I will specifically question students. I have them choose a dynamic level for a song we are about to sing or play and give me a reason for their choice. But most of the time I give students opportunities to explore creating with dynamics by letting them "conduct" in some way- usually by having one student use the same type of movement and vocabulary exploration I described for "responding" and having the class perform whatever the leader is demonstrating.

1. Big and small / conducting

One of the easiest ways to have students choose dynamics is to have them do gestures of some kind, whether it's "actual" conducting or just moving their hands apart and together, to adjust the volume of the rest of the class' performance while they sing or play instruments.

2. Props

There are a few props you can use to show loud and quiet (like lion vs fish puppets, for example), but my favorite one to use for this is the Hoberman sphere. This is the perfect way for students to practice showing louder and softer dynamics visually, especially including gradual changes.

3. Vocabulary

Of course students can also take turns pointing to dynamic markings on the board, or holding up cards that show different dynamics, to show the class which dynamic level they want.

For older students, I try to work in opportunities for students to make expressive decisions for their original melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic compositions as well. For written compositions, I'll have them practice writing in the dynamic markings on their scores. Other times, I may just ask students to perform their compositions again but include a change in dynamics, after they've performed their composition for the class the first time. This gives them more chances to focus on the purpose of dynamics and the process of making purposeful expressive decisions about dynamics without worrying about writing or specific vocabulary.

What are your favorite ways to teach dynamics? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments! If you're interested in seeing how all of these different ideas are laid out over the course of my elementary music lessons, here is my full curriculum set.

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