What does articulation mean in music? Articulation describes two things: first, how a tone is formed, second, how several tones are joined together. Below is a more detailed explanation of articulation in music, an overview of the main types of articulation with matching audio examples (and a cheat sheet!), and answers to the most important questions about articulation in music.
What you will read in this article:
Articulation (Music) – Meaning
Let’s start with a single tone: a tone is a sound event in time. This event can be long or short. Schematically, a long and a short tone look like this:
In music, one needs a tool to indicate how long or how short a tone should sound. This tool is the articulation.
A piece of music does not consist of only one single tone, but of many tones. Imagine a monophonic melody: Here, individual tones follow one another to form a larger whole.
But if the articulation specifies how long or how short a tone should sound, then this also has an effect on how several tones are connected to each other. This has to do with the time period between the tones.
If long tones are joined together (musicians also like to say “tied”), this time period is completely filled with the sound event and the tones merge seamlessly. If short tones are connected, there are pauses between the sound events. The tones are then separated from each other:
The second part of the definition is therefore as follows:
Now we can put the two parts of the definition together and get the complete definition of articulation in music:
It would be nice and simple if articulation were always an either-or: either short or long, either connected or separated. But it is not quite that clear-cut. Rather, there are many different gradations of how long, how short, how connected, and how separated tones can be. You can read more about this below.
The Most Important Articulation Types – Table, Audio Examples, Cheat Sheet
The main articulation types are used to indicate how long, how short, how connected (tied), and how separated tones should be. Most commonly used are legatissimo (extremely tied), legato (tied), tenuto (held), portato (pulsing), non legato (not tied), staccato (detached), and staccatissimo (extremely detached).
In the following table you will find the most important articulation types with the corresponding articulation symbols and articulation signs. To give you a better idea, I have also created a schema for each articulation type.
|legatissimo||Extremely tied. The tones follow each other without interruption and can even sound into each other.|
|legato||Tied. The tones follow each other without interruption.|
|tenuto||Held. The tones are sustained in their full length, but not connected.|
|portato||Pulsing. The tones are delivered with a slight emphasis. The pause between tones is minimal.|
|non legato||Not tied. "Neutral" articulation. The notes are set off from each other, with the pause between notes longer than in portato and shorter than in staccato.|
|staccato||Detached. The notes are played short, so that they sound shorter than they are actually notated. This increases the pause between notes.|
|staccatissimo||Extremely detached. The notes are played as short as possible. This makes the pause between notes even longer than in staccato.|
But now it’s time to listen to the differences of the different articulations! For this purpose, I have selected a short audio example from classical music for you for each articulation type. All listening examples are taken from Johannes Brahms’ Haydn Variations. This piece is particularly suitable for getting to know different types of articulation, because Brahms lets them follow each other in a small space.
The orchestra playing is the WDR Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Cristian Măcelaru.
Example 1/7: Legatissimo
Example 2/7: Legato
Example 3/7: Tenuto
Example 4/7: Portato
Example 5/7: Non Legato
Example 6/7: Staccato
Example 7/7: Staccatissimo
Cheat Sheet Articulation (Music)
Was that a bit much to take in? No problem. Here you can download a cheat sheet on articulation in music.
You will find once again the definition as well as the table of the most important types of articulation.
Advanced: Alternative Notation With Rests And Even More Indications
If you’re already a bit more familiar with musical notation, you may be asking yourself the following question: can’t short note values simply be notated with rests? You’re right. All articulations in which the notes are not connected can, of course, be written with rests as an alternative. For example, like this:
Why and for Whom is Articulation Important?
The short answer is yes, it is. Articulation is an important tool for shaping musical interpretations. I would like to elaborate on this a bit from the conductor’s point of view.
The Conductor's Point of View
Depending on how extensively the composer already specifies articulation in the score, a conductor has more or fewer decisions to make. There are composers who give an extremely large number of articulation indications. Béla Bartók is such a case:
Bartók’s notation already “tells” very precisely how this passage should be articulated. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), there is still plenty for conductors to do here:
- Do you notice, for example, that Bartók notates a staccato point after the legato bow in measures 2 and 3, but not in measure 1? Something like that needs to be brought out clearly.
- Also, should all notes be equally stressed? You might consider giving the notes a little more weight with a legato bow.
- Also interesting: the legato bow “moves” one note further forward in each measure….
In contrast, look at the example by Johann Sebastian Bach:
Bach uses neither symbols nor signs. In short, Bach does not prescribe any articulation at all in the score. Does this mean that everything should simply be played non legato?
I think not! Rather, it is the conductor’s task here to “figure out” the articulation. This has to do with the fact that many conventions that were in effect in Bach’s day have been changed or lost over time. For Bach, however, they were so self-evident that he did not need to write them down.
The discussion about which articulation conventions existed in Bach’s time and what exactly they looked like is very extensive and complex. It concerns the field of so-called historically informed performance. Since this field is far too complex for this overview article on articulation in music, I link here to a corresponding article.
The example of Johann Sebastian Bach could be articulated as follows:
By the way: the discussion about how much one may “interpret” as a conductor into such undesignated pieces concerns not only articulation, but also many other aspects of music, for example dynamics (volume).
Many famous conductors have experimented with it. For example, watch Leonard Bernstein try out, comment on, and weigh different interpretations of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (please turn on sound!):
Articulation is furthermore of importance to composers. Film music composers, for example, use articulation among many other building blocks to depict emotion in music.
Distinction From Phrasing
Again and again one can read that one can phrase with the help of articulation. This is actually not true, because articulation and phrasing work on different levels. While articulation in music works on the micro level (as you know by now, it is about the single tones and their connections), phrasing describes how larger musical units (figures, motifs, themes…) relate to each other.
This difference is important because the so-called phrasing bow, which emerged in the Romantic period, should not be confused with the above-mentioned legato bow, even though both bows look identical in the score. While the legato bow describes a type of articulation, the phrasing bow clarifies phrasing.
Articulation (Music) – Frequently Asked Questions
Now you know a little more about articulation in music. Below are brief answers to the most common questions about articulation.
Playing style is the articulation in music. This describes two things: first, how a tone is formed; second, how several tones are joined together.
Legato in music means that successive tones are joined together. There is no pause between the tones and the tones can easily blend into each other.
Non legato in music means that successive tones are not joined together. There is a short pause between the tones, which is shorter than in staccato and longer than in legato.
Portato in music means that tones are played with a slight emphasis. Successive tones are separated from each other. However, this separation is minimal.