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 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.
Legato in History
Legato has not always been the normal style of playing. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a more detached style, particularly for string and keyboard instruments, was more common. This had to do with the capabilities of the instruments themselves rather than a particular preference for this kind of sound.
For example, the harpsichord was a very common instrument during this period. When you press a key down on a harpsichord a hammer plucks (or pulls) a string inside the instrument. Plucking does not allow much reverberation, so the note is not capable of being sustained. Another common instrument, the viol, which was a type of early stringed instrument and a cousin to the violin, was played with a different shaped bow than today's modern violin, which was more suitable for detached playing.
However, as instrumentalists tended to imitate the human voice- an instrument that is sustained by its very nature- legato playing was certainly a goal to strive for, and instruments such as today's violins and pianos developed in part in order to create a better legato.
Achieving a beautiful legato is what every musician strives for. Music that is connected from note to note as opposed to being choppy or broken up produces a more pleasing quality for the listener and enhances the expressiveness of the music. But legato cannot be obtained without a strong technique or command of the musician's instrument. In addition, using legato to interpret the music requires a strong sense of the direction of the musical phrase. Visualization or body movement can aid in this process.
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