Articulation in Music

Articulation is a musical term in music that lay an emphasis on how a note or group of notes should be sing or played by an instrument. There is analogy between an articulation in musical performance and monologue expression in drama or film acting. For instance, you act to imitate a scenario and your expression must match the mood of that scenario.

Therefore, the tone of your voice must match with what you want to express. If you want to feel sad or elated, the tone of your voice needs to show that, to give the text of your lines its real meaning. Likewise, in music, the tone of the sound has much to do with the mood the sound will create. And musicians should know how and when to articulate in order to bring life out of a performance.

ALSO READ: What is Legato ?

There are various ways in music to show an articulation and many symbols, signs or marks are designated for this purpose in musical notation. Some of these symbols and marks are instruments specific while some are for general purpose. For example, string instruments are known for pizzicato (pizz), that instruct musician to pluck the string instead of bowing. While arco is an indication that normal bowing should resume. 

On the other hand, a dot placed over/under the head of a note indicates it should be played in staccato. That is, as short as possible. Likewise, the legato marking is a curved line written above or below the heads of a group of notes. This mark is for showing that those notes should be played smoothly.

Staccato and Legato we just mentioned are some of the articulation sign for general usage. For instance, legato is using for bowing instructions of string instruments, and also in vocal music. This phrase mark called slur that is usually placed on the head side of two or group of notes in order to prevent crossing over the note stems is used in music to indicate legato.

Types of Articulation

It’s very difficult to talk about articulation without exploring the wide range of types of articulation used in music. while it may be true that I can list almost all the articulations we have in music, a brief discussion on common ones will not be a bad idea.

Common types of articulation

This will help with our understanding of what they actually mean and what to do when we see them in a piece. With this in mind, some common articulation name and their respective markings and sign are discussed below:

I. Slur and Legato

A slur (phrase marking) is a curved line sweeping over two or more notes-head. Every notes with the slur mark are linearly run smoothly and connected (without separation) to one another. However, we can simply say that slur is a legato and legato is a slur because we mark notes with a slur to indicate legato for musical performance. Therefore, we can call slur a marking sign use in musical notation and refer to legato as a musical technique signifies by the slur. In short, the slur is the breath mark in the score that implies legato articulation.

ALSO READ: Musical Notation

The term legato is for “tied together” in Italian and it indicates that musical notes are to be played or sung smoothly and connected together. Legato connects two or more different notes (notes of different pitch) and it’s indicated in a piece by slur or word legato. So, when you see a word legato, know that you were instructed to play a slur.

Legato in music notation
Legato Notes

Organ will play legato effectively by technique like finger substitution. Legato playing on a guitar implicates using hammer-ons and pull-offs. It implicates playing the notes smoothly in one bow stroke on a violin. Also, a flute player would blow legato notes smoothly with one breath.

II. Staccato

Staccato is a performing technique employ in all categories of music, and it involves the duration in which a note should be played. This type of musical articulation called staccato is a word for “detached” in Italian. It is represented with a small dot written above/below a note.

Staccato in music notation
Notes with Staccato

The dot mark of staccato makes a note to be brief in its duration. On the other hand, do not mix staccato’s mark up with a rhythm dot of a dotted note. A dot for dotted note is written after a note-head (behind the head of a note) and not above/below it.

ALSO READ: Major Voice Classification

When musicians see a staccato, they would play or sing the notes in a style that will cut each note shorter in order to emphasize individual essence of each note. Furthermore, staccato makes a note to be played with a lesser duration along with a forceful attack and hasty release. In nowadays music, staccato notation indicates a note with a shorter duration with a minute silence between the note and the note that follows it.

III. Staccatissimo

This is another form of articulation in music that tell musicians to also shorten the duration of the note. It’s refers to as an exaggerated staccato, which means the note should be highly disconnected and distinct. The mark or symbol use to indicate staccatissimo is a very small and inverted triangle or sometimes small and wedge comma.

Staccatissimo signs on musical notes
staccatissimo marks on notes

Staccatissimo mark resemble a small spike or rain drop and it is normally placed on the head (below or above) of a note as shown in the diagram. Although, this articulation is no longer in use, but you can still find them in some scores.

IV. Marcato

Marcato in a non-formal articulation in music and sometimes refer to as an “accent”. It causes a note to be somehow better stronger than surrounding notes. This articulation is usually played with a strong and forceful attack and a clear detachment to the next note. Marcato is frequently used with a very loud notes and sometimes take on a lengthy time than desired by the composer. In order to play a very short note of marcato, you will combine marcato with a staccato. Another name for marcato is martelato or martellato, which means “hammered” in Italian.

V. Sforzando (sforzato or forzando or forzato)

Sforzando is a musical term that implies making a sudden and strong accent on a chord or note. The term sforzando is a word for subito forzando (fz) which actually means “suddenly with force”. However, some music scholar have sforzando to mean playing a note louder than note that came before and after it.

Fermata in music
Sforzando signs in musical notation

The effect that sfz created can be felt and interpreted in articulation and dynamics (term used to defined volume of a note or sound in music). The mark or sign used for Sforzando in music is an upside-down “v” to form > and can also be written as sfz, sf, or fz in abbreviated form.

VI. Fermata

Fermata is an articulation term in music that indicate holding a note or chord for a desire duration. In fact, no beat count is too short or long for the hold, but it must goes beyond the actual beat of the note. Also, Fermata can be treated as a tempo command because of its effect on the rhythm of the music. Therefore, consider how long you observe fermata as a creativity in music rather than the rule. In other words, it should all depend on a performer or the conductor’s art.

fermata in music
fermata symbol

The term fermata is an Italian word that means stay or hold. The sign or mark used for fermata is an arch with a thick dot beneath it and is normally placed exactly above or below the affected note. In other sense, fermata should be above or below the five lines of the stave and directly above a note.

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