Legato is a musical term that define how a piece of music should be performed. Anyone who has played in trained musical group (be it choral or orchestra) before must have heard the word legato one or more times. Even people who have taken music lesson, mingle with trained musicians, or watched musical movies or musical reality show must have heard it. Legato is common musical term used mostly by music teachers, conductors and seasoned musicians.
What is Legato?
But what does the term legato means in music? Legato is a musical term for bound, closed, and connected notes. It is a performance technique in music. It instructs musician to sing or play in an even, smooth, and gliding manner. When we sing or play in legato, continuous motion and fluid flow between sounds or notes will be produced. To this end, every note will be played in its full length or duration and merge directly into any note that follows it.
Legato comes from the Italian word ‘Legare’, which means to tie or bind. In other words, to connect or join together. In musical sense, legato simply signifies music that we sing or play with every note smoothly connected. This means without any space or interruption between the notes.
Specifically, legato notes are generally marked with slur symbol in musical content. Thus translate to an array of notes that are to be played all at once. For instance, in one up-bow or down-bow in violin. In musical notation, a slur is depicted with a curved line above or under notes that are in serial successions. Note that you placed it under note that has its stem facing upward. Also, above note that has its stem facing downward. Above all, It is used for notes in one bow for a violinist or one breath for singers.
The Legato Technique
Legato is an articulation technique for both singers and instrumentalists. Beside, it always defines the style in which a passage of the music it marked it will be performed. And it has emerged as one of the most recognized musical performance models of today. Whenever you listen to a piece of music that sounds connectedly smooth. Or music with notes that flows smoothly into another. You are listening to the legato technique in its functional mode. In spite of that, legato is handled differently by different musicians in terms of how to do it.
I. Legato technique for wind and string
What legato means to wind players is not the same as string players. For example, wind players will interpret legato as stability in airflow with almost zero intrusion from the mouth or fingers. Whereas, string player will translate it to playing all the legato notes in one bow by drawing the bow over the string smoothly.
For this purpose, he or she will be changing the bow path with the pliable movement of the wrist in order not to stop the movement.
II. Legato technique for voice
Of course, singers interpret it entirely differently. Besides handling legato by singing with the constant flow of the air, they also need to observe it in handling vowels and consonants. Specifically, they need sing long vowels with steady airflow and link the articulation of the last consonants to the opening of the next word. By doing this, they will smoothly link one note to the other and also ensure the vowels match. That is all a’s, e’s, i’s, o’s, and u’s sound similarly to also keep the colour of the sound. A little different will not only induce a shift in colour but will also make the flow phrasing of the passage sound improper.
III. Legato technique for the piano
Legato playing and interpretation of the piano are totally different from others. To achieve a smooth connected sound on a piano, the player needs to play the next tone before the present tone actually fades away. This will create an effect known as the illusion of sound. This is necessary because the piano sound is not continuous sound like that of the organ. When you hit or press the piano key the sound will start decaying and then fade away. For this reason, the piano is not absolutely able to perform a true legato without creating an illusion effect of it.
On the other hand, pianist employed damp pedal to enhance the illusion effect created by depressing the key until there is time for a new tone. Undoubtedly, many pianists employ the sustaining or damper pedal to keep the sound alive and achieve a smooth legato.
IV. Legato technique for the organ
The organ is basically a legato instrument because of the continuous sound it produces when you press down one of its keys. However, the sound will stop immediately you release the key.
Pressing and releasing the keys to generate and stop sound on the organ with our fingers without external force to sustain the sound marks the difference between it and the piano. Remember, there is a sustain pedal on the piano that keeps the sound on the piano longer. On the organ, once you lift your fingers up from the keys the sound stops immediately. Therefore, to play perfect legato on the organ you need to play notes without breaking of sound between the notes. Because, as you press and release the key, the tone will sound and stop instantly until you press the key again.
Obviously, failure to play smoothly connected notes on the organ will result in choppy music. For this reason, to genuinely play legato on the organ, the organist needs to properly manage the time of pressing and releasing the keys. This called for a defined fingering method that has been proving to be effective. A good organist employs those techniques and masters them to avoid a choppy sound on the organ.
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The most common technique to achieve legato playing on the organ is finger-substitutions. This is the method of pressing down the key with one finger and smoothly replaced the finger with another finger. Consequently, you will able to keep the note sounding at the same time adjusting your hands to move to the next passage. Other techniques you can use are: write in fingering, finger glissando, and finger crossing.
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