Shades of Sound

Are you painting your studio?

That was the question I was asked when I whipped out these paint samples during piano lessons.


Nope…no painting today.  Just a good visual lesson on dynamics.

Anybody out there a visual learner?  I am.  When I see, I tend to remember much better. When I was in grad school (for piano pedagogy and performance), my piano teacher challenged me to make a map of the phrasing and dynamics for the pieces I was working on. It was incredible to see the ups and downs of the dynamics.  I could then see patterns of phrasing and dynamics within each individual piece. After making the map, I could visualize where I was going with the piece – how high is this crescendo? How low is this decrescendo?  How will I build this phrase? The mapping literally transformed my sense of phrasing.

So…changing my hat from student to teacher…the question to myself was – how can I make the abstract concept of dynamics become more concrete?  How can my students visualize a sound?

Enter the home improvement store. (I’m there quite often…I love that place…)

I picked up a few dozen paint samples to help teach dynamics to the little Mozarts. The concept is that the lighter the color, the lighter the dynamic shade of sound. The darker the color, the louder the sound.  I try not to use terms like “fuller, deeper, or more intense” to describe louder sounds, because I’ve heard brilliant pianists play piano and pianissimo with just as much intensity as any fortissimo passage. We piano teachers need to be careful to teach the full spectrum of sounds and touches with equal importance.

I love the blocks of colors on each paint sample because it perfectly demonstrates that each “sound block” –piano, mezzo piano, etc. has a range of sound. You can crescendo and decrescendo within any “block” of sound.

After having each student write the terms on the paint samples, we try them out.  How do you make a piano sound? Mezzo piano? Mezzo forte, forte? This is a great time to teach touch.  The approach to the note makes a huge difference here.  If you start with your fingers on the keys, you can achieve a beautiful piano tone much easier. To accomplish a big forte sound, start with your fingers above the keys to attack the note with more speed and force.

The more advanced students will then experiment with producing two different tones at the same time. Right hand forte, left hand piano, etc. The combinations are many. Easy scales, pentascales, or Hanon exercises do the trick here.

As we move into repertoire in the rest of the lesson, I leave the paint sample out so that we can refer to the visual representation of the sound. I have found this simple tool helps the students create varying sounds and is an interesting way to talk about dynamics, phrasing, and touch.

Try it!