Originall Published in our magazine back in July 2013 we thought it was useful to highlight these simple explanations again.
It’s not just the words you say that get a message across—it’s the way you say them. Similarly, in music, there are many ways to “say” the same notes. Without following articulation markings, your playing could end up sounding like the equivalent of speaking in a monotone. Here’s an easy guide to help you become more “articulate” and bring more life into your playing by using accents, slurs, and staccatos.
An accent adds extra emphasis, or a burst of energy, on the note that it marks. In general, more force and more speed on the attack of the note will create the effect. String players, for ex- ample, can use a faster vibrato, faster bow speed, and extra bow weight at the beginning of the note. Wind players can blow air into their instruments more quickly and tongue with more consonant syllables, such as “ta” and “ka,” as opposed to softer syllables, like “da” and “ga.” Keep in mind that accents appear- ing in music from the Baroque period (1600-1750) and the Classical period (1750-1820) should be executed a bit more gently than accents in Romantic era music (1820-1910) and beyond.
A slur indicates that a group of notes should be played as smoothly and connected as possible. For example, players of bowed string instruments achieve this by playing all of the notes in the slur in the same bow—in other words, one continuous “down” bow or one continuous “up” bow. Wind players should use a constant stream of air to connect all of the notes in a slur. If a slur appears with dash lines (called tenuto markings) above or below individual notes, the notes should be played with a very slight separation, somewhere in between staccato and slurred articulation.
A staccato marking shortens the length of a note, usually by half. Pianists, for example, play staccato by refraining from using the pedal and lifting their fingers from the keys quicker. Wind players can stop the flow of air abruptly by using a syllable like “tut,” while guitarists can use their right hand (the strumming/picking hand) to cut off the sound between notes. In Classical-era music, staccato notes should have a bouncier feel—in fact, string players will literally bounce their bows off of the string. In later periods of music, staccato is generally heavier and more accented, unless otherwise indicated in the score or by a conductor.