Articulation in Music
The music definition of articulation is the way in which a specific note or group of notes should be performed beyond the basics of pitch, duration and dynamic. It covers techniques such as staccato, legato, slurs, pauses and ornaments, including trills, appoggiaturas and acciaccaturas.
In many ways, articulations are like musical punctuation.
Musical articulations are shown by the use of a wide range of articulation markings.
Let’s have a look at the most common articulation markings you will come across in music.
Staccato is one of the most common musical articulations.
The music definition of Staccato literally means “short, detached” and is shown by a dot written above or below the note.
If you see a dot above/below a note then this means that the note should not be held for its complete duration – it should be shortened slightly to detach it from its neighbour.
So, in the following example you can see a staccato on the 1st crotchet:
As a result, the performer would actually shorten the crotchet to possibly the length of a quaver.
The exact extent to which the performer will shorten the note depends on a number of factors, such as musical context, genre and simply personal preference.
Please note that a staccato dot goes above or below the note – this is very different to dotted rhythms where the dot is written after the note and extends the note length by 50%. It is easy to get confused by this if you are not careful!
Legato is the opposite of staccato – legato literally means “smooth, together”.
A legato phrase is one that should be played smoothly with no gap between the notes played.
A legato phrase is indicated by a curved line (called a phrase mark) over the top of/underneath the music.
The following line of music has a legato phrase mark and so should be played as smoothly as possible….
Slurs are shortened versions of phrase marks which join 2 notes of different pitch.
Note: this is different to the note ties which connect the length of 2 notes of the same pitch.
Traditionally, a slur means that the 1st note should be emphasised slightly and played smoothly (legato) into the 2nd note. The second note should also be played slightly quieter than the 1st note and shortened slightly.
So, the following phrase of crotchets…
would actually sound more like this when performed:
Conversely to the staccato mark which tells the performer to shorten the note, the pause (or fermata) tells the performer to hold the note for a longer period of time than written. So, the following extract….
would actually sound something like….
Note: If more than one instrument is playing at once then pause marks would be put above each instrument’s music. Alternatively, the phrase General Pause (G.P.) could be written.
Some articulations change the dynamic of the music, such as accents, tenuto markings and sforzando marks. I have covered these in my lesson on dynamics.
Other Music Articulation Markings
A slide (or glissando or portamento) means the performer swoops up/down in pitch from one note to the next rather than jumping straight to the note.
This is indicated by a straight diagonal line.
So, the following music…
….tells the performer to swoop up from the 1st note to the 2nd note.
(The abbreviation “Port.” is optional)
This is fairly easy to do on most instruments, but on a piano this involves running your thumb nail quickly along the keys (piano glissandi are commonly heard in rock and roll music where the piano player does a glissando from the highest note on the piano down to the middle of the piano).
String instruments have the ability to play harmonics.
Harmonics are indicated by the following symbol….
Here is an example of how a harmonic sounds on a guitar:
Music Articulations Chart
I have put together a printable Music Articulations Chart showing the most common articulation markings you will come across.
I hope it helps!
Click on the image to open the PDF version.