- Learn what articulation in music means
- Discover the main articulations used in music
- Find out what articulation brings to a piece of music
- Also, check out our post on tone color!
Whether you’re listening to your favorite slow ballad, a hair-raising piece of film music, or a bumping R’n’B track, you’re most likely listening to instruments showcasing the power of musical articulation.
So, what is articulation in music? How is this principle used in our favorite music, and how does it affect our impressions as listeners?
Let’s dive in!
A diagrammatic approach showing the most commonly used articulations in music.
What Does Articulation In Music Mean?
Put simply; articulation is how instruments (or voices) are played (or sung) and draws upon a range of established musical techniques for each instrument/voice.
Whatever the musical tradition you’re into, composers and performers who practice and involve themselves in that tradition and its style will have found ways to express their music in the way they feel is most effective.
This involves playing instruments in certain ways and requires the employment of certain articulation techniques.
These techniques result from hundreds – in some traditions, thousands – of years of experimenting with musical composition and performance.
Take this passage of string music, for example – firstly played ‘legato’ (long, conjoined notes), then played ‘staccato’ (short, detached notes). Notice the huge difference in how the two versions feel.
In Western music, articulation techniques are usually expressed through sheet music notation in the form of articulation markings.
Traditions from other areas of the world may understand how to express their music articulation through word of mouth, rites of passage, and community-based knowledge (more on this below).
This is how the articulation markings look for the ‘legato’ version of the passage above:
Notice that most notes don’t have any markings but are simply long and sustained enough to fill the music with no gaps and feel conjoined.
The main melody features overhead ‘slur’ markings to imply that each note joins smoothly.
Likewise, here are the articulation markings for the ‘staccato’ version:
Notice how each note is short and features a small dot below or above it. This is a staccato articulation mark, which instructs the player to play short, jagged notes in the music.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of articulation and the contrast between two different articulation styles, let’s look at the main articulations used in almost every piece of music to date.
Related: What Is Homophonic Texture In Music?
What Are The Main Articulations Used In Music?
Many types of articulations are used in music, each with varying effects on how the note is played. The main articulations used in most contemporary and classical music include:
|Slur / Legato||Indicates musical notes are to be played or sung smoothly and connected.|
|Staccato||Signifies a note of shortened duration or detached, played non-legato and with some urgency.|
|Tenuto||Hold the note in question its full length (or longer, with slight rubato), or play it slightly louder.|
|Marcato||Indicates a short note, long chord, or medium passage to be played louder or more forcefully than surrounding music.|
|Pizzicato||Indicates a plucked note (rather than bowed) on orchestral string instruments.|
|Portamento||Indicates a slide from one note to the next. The equivalent of fretted, keyed, or non-sliding instruments is a Glissando, or Gliss (sweeping from one note to the next and briefly touching all notes in between).|
Let’s look at some examples of these articulations being used in action!
Slur / Legato
John Williams’ Theme from ‘Jurassic Park’
You’ll notice this piece sounds incredibly graceful, almost as if it is slowly lumbering through the Jurassic Park reservation like a towering dinosaur itself.
That is achieved, in large part, thanks to the use of slurring in the melody (marked by curved ‘bracket’ lines over two or more notes) and long, drawn-out notes in the accompaniment.
Vocaloid’s ‘Patchwork Staccato’ (For Piano)
In contrast to the Jurassic Park theme above, this piece sounds urgent, spiky, and rather playful – like a little puppy bouncing around trying to get your attention!
This is because almost all the notes in this passage are marked with staccato (dots above and below the notes). Of course, it also sounds urgent and playful because the tempo is pretty quick.
Tenuto / Marcato
Tcherepin’s ‘Bagatelle, Op. 5 No. 1’
Marcato’s are otherwise known as ‘accents.’ They are the > (horizontal ‘hat’-like brackets’ underneath certain notes, indicating that the chosen note(s) will be played with more vigor and force than others.
This usually means playing the note slightly louder, but it’s more important to hit the note quickly and with fierce urgency than ensure that the note is played loudly.
It is a dramatic effect rather than a purely dynamic one – if the composer wished for a purely LOUD note, they would simply mark the note as f (forte) or louder.
Tenutos are a special and subtle articulation mark: the ‘dash’-like lines above and below certain notes (highlighted in yellow and green above).
The effect of a Tenuto is ghostly – a mixture of a slightly drawn-out, sustained quality and a touch of vibrato to finish the note.
This passage by Tcherepin showcases the power of Marcato and Tenuto when used in the same stretch of music. Notice that most of the passage weaves between the two articulation techniques.
Still, the third bar of the image above (bottom left quadrant) contains an instance – where the green highlighted markings are – of Marcato and Tenuto being used simultaneously!
Danny Elfman’s Theme from ‘The Simpsons’
Danny Elfman is known for his fun, upbeat scores, and his title theme overture for ‘The Simpsons’ is by no means an exception!
Notice how the ‘Pizz.’ markings indicate Pizzicato for the Violin II part in the third bar – this is when we hear the signature bouncy plucked sound that we associate with the theme.
Pizzicato is a fantastic technique that can generate all sorts of whimsical feelings, especially when one or two instrument parts are playing ‘Pizz.’ and the rest are using a different articulation.
The contrast in musical techniques being played at once can create a sense of play for the listener.
James A. Moorer’s ‘THX Logo Theme’
Although this example may look rather odd, it is possibly one of the finest examples of portamento articulation in music.
This passage features portamento for 30 voices at ‘random pitches between 200hz and 400hz’, moving en masse towards a designated arrangement of pitches across the frequency spectrum.
It is not a usual way to feature this articulation, and the above notation is clearly not that of a standard piece of music.
However, notice the curved lines stretching from the beginning set of pitches to the ending ‘chord’ – and imagine the notes all being played on 30 trombones.
It would sound a bit ‘circus-like,’ right? The power of suggestion with Portamento articulation is huge because sliding between notes can sound provocatively unusual and, at times, downright silly.
Portamento is a sliding quality used most commonly for trombones and vocals since these are two of the most popular instruments capable of sliding easily.
There are many other articulation techniques, but we’ll stick to this handful for now.
If you’re interested in exploring even more inventive ways to use articulation, check out this guide to understanding extended techniques in music.
Related: What Are Musical Textures? (Breaking Down The 4 Different Types)
What Does Articulation Bring to Music?
As we have seen and heard above, different articulations can make the same note sound and feel completely different.
The effect achieved by one articulation can provide a very different impression for us listeners than another articulation.
In some cases, different articulations can be used together in the same passage for one musical instrument – one bar of Pizzicato, then one bar of Portamento (all on a Violin), for example.
The result here is usually sophisticated and can show off acrobatic musical credibility.
In other cases, different articulations can be simultaneously employed throughout different instrument parts, e.g., the Danny Elfman theme for ‘The Simpsons’ examined above.
The result here is dramatic contrast; depending on the starkness of the difference in articulations used, it can often sound bouncy and silly.
If a set of Trombones were playing Tenuto against a set of Violins playing slurred Legato, the effect might be far more solemn.
The suggestive power of articulation in music is a powerful thing. You’re encouraged to examine different methods and techniques of articulation outside of what we’ve looked at here.
Next time you listen to a piece of music, you may identify which articulations are being used at any time.
If not just one, then maybe a few are employed at once, which is especially common in Romantic Classical music.
Brahms, Mahler, and Berlioz are Romantic Classical composers with fantastic back catalogs to start examining.
Keep immersing yourself in the magic of musical articulation!
Before you go, check out our post on What Is A Music Scale (And Why We Use Them)!