9 Classical Songs To Teach Dynamics

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Do you want to expand your songs with dynamics collection to include more classical pieces? 

Are you looking for ways to get your students listening to more classical music?

Students love learning about dynamics, and to be honest, I think we all love teaching it. Practicing louds and softs is just fun! 

But I wanted to take advantage of this energy to include more exposure to classical pieces in my teaching. I went searching and came up with this list of 9 classical songs to teach dynamics. 

Good classical songs for teaching dynamics should have clear contrasting loud and soft sections. My favorites to use when teaching include: 

  • In The Hall Of The Mountain King
  • Hungarian Dance No. 5
  • “Surprise” Symphony
  • Stars And Stripes Forever
  • Pictures At An Exhibition: The Hut On Fowl’s Legs
  • Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony: Movement 2
  • Beethoven’s 5th Symphony
  • Adagio For Strings
  • William Tell Overture

Read ahead for more information on teaching dynamics and a little more about these examples below.  

Brief Dynamics In Music Definition

Dynamics is the element in music dealing with how loud or soft the sound is. It also involves the direction of the volume in a phrase and section and whether it’s getting louder or getting softer. 

Dynamics are one of the marks of an expert musician. 

Dynamics are usually marked to a basic degree on all pieces, but many professional-level performers and ensembles are expected to add their own as a mode of personal interpretation and expression. 

Dynamic Terms

When they’re marked, the symbols are usually seen as letters representing Italian words for how loud or soft their music should be. Here are the main dynamic markings (and they’re short-hand in parentheses): 

  • Pianissimo (pp) – Very soft 
  • Piano (p) – soft
  • Mezzo Piano (mp) – medium-soft
  • Mezzo forte (mf) – medium-loud
  • Forte (f) – Loud*
  • Fortissimo (ff) – Very loud
  • Triple forte (fff) – Even louder**

*Forte is more correctly translated as “strong.” Many music directors encourage their students to think of this word rather than “loud” which may result in poor tone quality. 

**Triple forte is not well-respected in most music circles. It’s thought the editor or composer either doesn’t have faith in the ensemble’s ability to play climatic sections with appropriate gusto, or they actually want a volume that sacrifices some sound quality. 

There are also crescendo and decrescendo markings. Crescendo (shown with a “<” symbol stretching over the marked phrase) means to start quieter and get louder, usually specified with a specific marking from above. 

Decrescendo (shown with a “>” symbol) means the opposite. 

Note: These markings can be seen as symbols, words, abbreviations, or even the meaning of the words written in a native language (ex. “Get louder” instead of crescendo).

“Diminuendo” is a term which also means “get softer” like decrescendo. This use of the term is usually when the decrease in dynamics is more gradual. 

How Do You Teach Dynamics?

Teaching dynamics may seem pretty simple. Just tell them what all the markings mean, and then practice, practice, practice. 

While this will work well, it isn’t the most effective strategy. 

For one, it doesn’t address different learning styles at all, so you may leave some of your students in the dust.

For another, this mechanical approach leaves off the expressive aspects of dynamics. Musicians need to be able to feel these dynamics on their own without the guide of markings to a certain degree. 

After all, we know that dynamic marking didn’t even appear in music until later in the history of music, but the performers and composers still expected dynamic contrast to be played. 

Here are a few (very brief) dynamic activities you may try to teach in elementary or secondary. 

Teaching Dynamic Activities

Kinesthetic – Students move large or small motions to match the dynamics of a recorded piece (examples of such pieces below). 

For movement with classical music, you can’t beat the Move It! DVD.

It’s affordable and filled with easy-to-apply music lessons. (Go ahead; click the link to check it out!)

Visual – Students sing/play loud and soft following either pictures representing different dynamics or the dynamic markings themselves. 

Creative – Students arrange pictures or markings which represent dynamics and then perform a song they know well with these dynamics. Then, they need to reflect and edit their work.

Expressive/Social – Have students listen to a classical piece for the following questions: 

  • How would you describe the dynamics of this piece? 
  • How often do they and how do they change?
  • Why do you think the composer and musician wanted them to change in this way? 
  • What do you think would happen if the dynamics changed in an opposite way?

Students answer and discuss these questions in small groups of 2-4. Then, the answers are shared with the class. 

These activities can easily be done with secondary or elementary students. 

The examples and discussion should be expected to be on a higher level and more independent with the older students while younger students’ answers are more simple and whole group based. 

Check out how to teach dynamics in preschool and kindergarten. 

9 Classical Pieces to Teach Dynamics 

In this section, I’ll break down my list of classical pieces. I’ll include a video link to each of them for you to use. 

In The Hall Of The Mountain King

This piece by Edvard Grieg is a staple in my music classroom. The piece has a clear contrast in dynamics as the song progresses. 

There is a clear build from a very quiet dynamic to a very loud one. In the video below, they even include some dynamic markings if you watch carefully. 

On top of the dynamic concepts, this piece would also be great for teaching tempo as it mirrors the dynamics. 

It’s also a great piece for practicing quarter notes, eighth notes, and quarter rests. 

You could even tie in the minor key the song is written in. 

Hungarian Dance No. 5

Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms is one of my favorites to work with. The song is filled with such contrasting dynamics and tempo it provides ample opportunity for movement and discussion. 

Better yet, each interpretation and performance of this song has different dynamics and tempo choices. This would make a great compare and contrast discussion with older kids. 

I use this piece for all age levels, and you may want to read more about some of those from fun Kindergarten music activities. 

“Surprise” Symphony

Of course, no discussion of classical music and dynamics would be present without the obvious “Surprise” symphony by Franz Joseph Haydn. 

There isn’t a clearer example of dynamics around, and the story is fun for all ages. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, here it is in brief: 

Back in 1790, Haydn wrote music for the Austrian prince, Nikolaus Esterházy. But the story goes that the prince and other audience members had a tendency to fall asleep during the inner slow movements of symphonies. 

Haydn, who didn’t appreciate this, decided to write in a surprise in this 1791 symphony no. 94. The movement starts gently as one would expect, creeping softer and softer until… BOOM!

A swift dynamic change jars any sleeping members of the audience awake. 

Check out a lot of cool information about this piece at Study.com

Stars And Stripes Forever

John P. Sousa’s Stars And Stripes Forever is one of the marches everyone should know. It exemplifies the American march style to perfection and has a rich history and story to it. 

The piece was even declared the national march of America. The piece is fun and instantly recognizable with a high-quality group also performing with large dynamic contrast. 

Feel free to delve into the interesting composition notes and discuss. (Hint: every theme is meant to represent a part of the country. Have older students research and discuss). 

Pictures At An Exhibition: The Hut On Fowl’s Legs

Mussorgsky’s Pictures is one of my all-time favorite pieces, and the whole piece is filled with awesome listening activities for kids of all ages. 

“The Hut On Fowl’s Legs” is one of the movements which would be perfect for teaching dynamics. The piece is volatile, and the dynamics are widely contrasting. 

Pro-tip: Further the discussion by showing the picture this movement was drawn from and talk about the connection between art and music. 

Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony: Movement 2

On the opposite end from the last piece, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony 2nd Movement is a beautiful piece with its soaring french horn solo. 

It also features sections which contrast this theme in both style and dynamics. 

In my experience, students love learning about Tchaikovsky, especially when they learn of his connection to the Nutcracker, Black Swan, and the 1812 Overture. 

If you wanted to get more into form and themes, this piece features a clear form and an interjecting Fate theme. 

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

There is no classical piece as instantly recognizable as the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. For those who listen to more than the opening notes, they’ll find a movement with beautiful themes and contrasting dynamics. 

This video is an abridged form of the movement. It also helps to realize the form of the movement and the contrasts in dynamics. 

I love using this piece to teach dynamics and form, but it also serves as a great launching point for learning about the life of one of the greatest composers of all time (I’m not biased, you’re biased!).

Adagio For Strings

Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It’s a shame, then, that most kids wouldn’t be able to recognize it.

But it’s iconic slow dynamic build and smooth voice leading make it a prime candidate for a classical piece to teach dynamics.

The longer 8+ minutes with slow rhythmic movements make it a little harder for younger kids to pay attention to. If you included some kind of movement or listening map, you may find more success. 

Older students will be able to listen if you give them things to listen for. 

This one may be a harder sell with kids, but the pay-off is immense.   

William Tell Overture

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the William Tell Overture by Rossini. This piece is a fun, upbeat tune with contrasting dynamics. 

The story behind William Tell and the opera is interesting as is the impact and placement of the piece through history (Lone Ranger, anyone?). 

The video I included below is a goofy cover of the piece played on melodica (which is one of the best instruments for elementary music). My kids like watching these guys, but if you wanted to use an orchestral performance, you’re more than welcome to. 

I will do both, and then we compare and contrast in small groups the two performances. 

Commonly Asked Questions

In this section, I’ll answer some common questions I receive when talking about music in relation to dynamics. These may seem like obvious answers to some of you, but there’s no such thing as a bad question!

What’s the difference between pitch or melody and dynamics in music? – Pitch in music refers to high or low a sound is. This is measured by the sound’s frequency. 

Dynamics in music is how loud or soft the sound is. This is measured in decibels.

The main source of confusion is in using the words “high” and “low” to also describe volume. By drawing a stronger contrast and not misusing the words, you’ll dispel confusion.  

How do you describe dynamics in music? – Dynamics are how loud or quiet a sound is in music. Dynamics also refers to whether a sound is getting louder or getting softer. 

How do dynamics affect music? – Dynamics are one of the elements of music, and it’s one that does a lot to impact the emotional quality of music. 

It draws interesting contrast from phrase to phrase and section to section, and it’s one of the main elements driving motion into the music. 

What are the 7 elements of music? – The 7 elements of music are: 

  • Pitch
  • Duration (rhythm)
  • Dynamics
  • Tempo (also beat) 
  • Timbre
  • Texture
  • Structure (form)

Conclusion

I hope you find this list of 9 classical songs to teach dynamics helpful for your classroom. Dynamics are an important element of music and one kids have a blast learning about. 

It’s also one of the elements which separates the amateurs from the experts, so these pieces may be helpful to even secondary musicians. 

Want more classical music teaching resources?

You HAVE to check out Teaching Children Music. They provide a ton of resources to get kids excited about learning from great pieces.

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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