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Legato: Definition & Technique

Instructor: Sharon Rhinesmith
In this lesson you will learn about the musical concept of legato and how it is achieved. Legato is a type of smooth, connected phrasing that is highly desirable in music and an important goal musicians strive to attain.

What Is Legato?

'Legato, legato.' Anyone who has ever played in an orchestra, taken music lessons, observed a rehearsal or even watched a movie or TV show about music will have heard this term, commonly used by conductors and teachers. But what does it mean? It comes from the Italian word 'legare', which means to tie or bind. In other words, to connect or join together. In a musical sense, it signifies music that is played or sung without any space or interruption between the notes. Legato is both a technique of playing or singing and a style or interpretation of the music being performed, and it has evolved into the gold standard of musical performance today.

The curved line signifies to play this scale in legato
Music scale in legato

The Legato Technique

Legato has a different association depending on what kind of musician you are.

To a wind player, it means using a steadiness of air flow with minimal interruption from the fingers or mouth.

To a string player, it means smoothly drawing the bow over the string, playing as many notes as possible in one bow and changing the direction of the bow with a flexible motion of the wrist so as not to stop the motion.

For singers, legato means not only keeping a constant air flow, but also singing long vowels and carrying over the articulation of the final consonants into the beginning of the next word so as to best connect one note to another. It also involves making sure the vowels match. All a's, o's, e's etc. must sound alike. If one of them is slightly different it will cause a change in color and sound out of place in the flow of the phrase.

Pianists learn to delay the lifting of their finger until the next note is in place so that a key is pressed down at all times. This involves coordination from the wrist and proper finger strength. They also employ the pedal to keep the sound sustained. All of these techniques take many years of practice for musicians to perfect.

The Legato Style

When hearing music, a listener generally expects a seamless sound as opposed to one that is disconnected or disjointed. It has become our ideal of what is most beautiful and expressive.

Besides perfecting the technique of the instruments described above, there are many ways musicians try to attain legato in their interpretation of the music: they may try to visualize a shape like an arch or a line and move the sound in an imaginary way through this shape. They may try to accelerate the tempo (speed) of the phrase so that the music doesn't become weighted or dragged down. Sometimes a physical motion of the body can help too, such as when pianists moves their head or torso to the music to help guide the fingers. Singers will imagine the tone moving forward away from them toward a particular focal point.

Employing legato also helps to gradually change the dynamics (volume) of a musical piece from soft to loud (crescendo) or loud to soft (decrescendo) and add to its expressiveness. Long, connected, sweeping phrases provide a surge of emotion important to the dramatic tension of a musical piece.

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