Articulation in Music

Accents and curved lines placed around music notes change the way they sound and relate to each other. This concept is called “articulation.”

In this post I want to discuss the meaning of articulation in music. Before we look at a definition, here’s an analogy: When an actor reads his lines he must speak in a way that well represents the meaning of the text. If the text is sad, let’s say a death scene, then he should speak in a sorrowful voice. It would be mighty strange to speak in a bright and cheerful voice if one’s family had just died. In music, musicians control sound much in the same way as actors control the mood, atmosphere, and tone of their voice while delivering text.

Articulation refers to the way an individual note or group of notes should be performed. There are various marks to show articulation, some only being used for specific instruments. Directions for use of the sustaining pedal on the piano is an example. Other signs have a more general use. A dot placed over or under the head of a note indicates it should be played staccato, as short as possible. The slur marking is a curved line written above or below the heads of a group of notes, showing these pitches should be played smoothly. Slurs are found in vocal music, but are also used for bowing instructions of stringed instruments. The curved line is similar to that of the phrase, but is usually applied to a much smaller group of notes.


Types of Articulation

It’s very difficult to talk about articulation without exploring the wide range of types of articulation used. Although I can go in depth into every type a brief description of the differences in articulation may help with your understanding of the meaning.
Some common articulation markings are:

Slur – A slur is a curved line sweeping over two or more note-heads. Under the slur, notes run smoothly, duration 100%. A slur is a symbol in Western musical notation indicating that the notes it embraces are to be played without separation.They are naturally articulated with the first note accented and long, the last note short and soft. One slur above another is the same as two slurs under one. The slur is the comma, breath mark in the score. This implies legato articulation. 

Legato – In music performance and notation, legato (Italian for “tied together”) indicates that musical notes are played or sung smoothly and connected. It connects two or more different notes. In piano music, the individual notes must be struck, but there should be no audible spaces between them.

Staccato – (Italian for detached) A small dot written above or below a note that makes it brief in duration. (Not to be confused with a rhythm dot, which is written after a note-head). It is a form of musical articulation. In modern notation it signifies a note of shortened duration, separated from the note that may follow by silence. 

In Jazz, a dot staccato crotchet is the same as an unarticulated quaver followed by a quaver rest. Jazz musicians always prefer the staccato crotchet notation. In symphonic music a dotted crotchet may not be the same as an unarticulated quaver - quaver rest. Check the instrumentation first. Some symphonic players prefer the quaver - quaver rest notation.

StaccatissimoA small wedge or straight comma above a note that creates an exaggerated staccato; a very brief note.Staccatissimo is an indication to play with an exaggerated staccato; to keep notes very detached and brief.

MarcatoInformally referred to as simply an “accent,” a marcato makes a note slightly more pronounced than surrounding notes.

Sforzando– (or sforzato or forzando or forzato), indicates a forceful accent and is abbreviated as sfsfz or fz. It makes a note considerably louder than surrounding notes. When a single note is affected, the abbreviation sfz is used.
* Sforzando is also considered a dynamics command.

Fermata–This is an articulation mark that allows a note or chord to be held for as long as desired. A fermata may also be considered a tempo command.A fermata is written upside down below the staff if it affects a lower plane of action If a fermata is written over a bar line, there will be a pause between the measures.

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