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Articulation in Music: Types & Notation

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

How do musicians know to play notes short or long? What indicates whether a melody line is gentle or bold? It's all about articulation. This lesson explores musical articulation and some notations used to identify it.

What Is Articulation?

When you listen to music, you hear changes in tempo, rhythm, and in the character of the sound. For instance, does the musician hit a series of notes loudly and then back off or begin softly and build up to a large sound? Musicians know where and when to make such changes because of articulation.

Articulation in music refers to how specific notes or passages are played or sung. Composers and arrangers provide articulation directions in the form of written notation, symbols placed above or below notes. Some articulation like bowing and plucking marks for strings is exclusive to specific instruments. For example, seeing the abbreviation pizz. on the music means pizzicato, (pronounced pit-si KA' toe) which signals to pluck rather than bow the strings. Seeing the word arco means to return to normal bowing methods. Brass and woodwind players would never see these markings on their music!

Other musical notations are used for all types of music and instruments. They may be written for individual notes or for a longer musical passage. Let's look at a few examples, beginning with articulation marks for single notes.

Articulation Marks for Single Notes

Example of articulation marks. From left to right: staccato, staccatissimo, marcato, accent, and tenuto.
articulation for individual notes

In this image, these notes include specific marks for different articulations. At the far right, a line over or under the body of a single note means it is to be played tenuto (ten-U' toe) or held to its full value. A single dot above or below the body of a note means it's staccato (sta KA' toe), or short and separate. Even the word staccato sounds edgy and precise. It's very much the opposite of tenuto. For extremely short notes, a mark that looks like a triangular wedge or exclamation point without the dot is called a staccatissimo (sta-ka TISS' i-mo). It's even shorter and edgier than staccato.

An upside down 'V' over a note signals that it's to be played marcato (mar KA' toe), which tells the musician to strongly emphasize the note, putting power into it. In a line with one note articulated with a marcato, that note is meant to stand out. A sideways 'V' that looks similar to a greater than symbol is an accent, which also places more emphasis on a note. One clarification here: A marcato signals to hit a note strongly and back off immediately. At first, it's more emphasis than an accent, but it isn't held out as long as an accented note.

Other articulation marks for single notes tell the singer or player to manipulate the note with trills, where a player quickly goes back and forth from the written note to the note above it, and other kinds of musical ornamentation. Such notations make individual notes more decorative or embellished.

Notation for Phrases

Some articulation is designed for whole groups of notes. A long sideways angle with the point aimed left (sometimes referred to as a hairpin) is called a crescendo (kre SHEN' doe). When placed under a group of notes, it tells you to gradually play louder as the passage moves forward. A long sideways angle that open at the left and closes to a point at the right (in other words, the mirror image of the crescendo mark) is a diminuendo (di-min-u EN' doe) or decrescendo (de-kre SHEN' doe). As the opposite of a crescendo, it tells you to gradually play softer as the passage moves forward.

Example of crescendo, with the hairpin opening wider, and decrescendo, with the hairpin getting smaller
example of crescendo

A curved line that connects notes of the same pitch within or across a bar line is called a tie. It tells the musician to connect the notes and play them as one smooth tone. In our crescendo-decrescendo illustration, the musical passage has an example of a tie. Notice the curved line connecting two notes in the second measure.

A curved line connecting a group of different or many notes, meanwhile, is called a slur. The curved line tells musician that all the notes in a passage should be performed legato (le GA' toe), or smooth and connected without separating individual notes.

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