Today’s discussion will be about articulations, the other component of musical expression we introduced in the last post which if you recall was about dynamics. Articulations are an extensive topic to cover. When we talk about articulations we are referring to the musical marks and symbols that specify how individual notes are performed within a phrase or passage. Here are just a few examples to begin this discussion.
There are many articulations that refer to one note at a time. Staccato is indicated by a dot placed over or under the note (depending on the actual note’s orientation on the staff). A staccato note is played in a very short, detached fashion. The opposite of staccato is tenuto which is indicated by a line over or under the note (again, depending on the note’s orientation on the staff). Tenuto means to play a note for it’s full value or sometimes even slightly longer. The mark indicating a note sustained “indefinitely” (where the actual length is held for a number of beats determined by the performer or conductor, often interpreted as twice the note’s written value) is called a fermata and is indicated by a “frown” with a dot in the center that is placed over the note in question. A final example of an articulation mark indicated one note at a time would be the accent which looks like a mathematical “greater than” sign written over a note. An accented note is played louder and with attack.
Sometimes articulation marking are combined to fine tune exactly how the note is to be played. You will sometimes see both a staccato and tenuto written together over a single note, indicating a “longer” staccato. Some articulations are by definition, a combination of terms though designated by their own marking, like the marcato which looks like a “party hat” and acts like a staccato and an accent in that the note is played loudly, with a strong attack resulting in a sharp sound.
There are also articulations that apply to a series of notes. The most common are the tie and the slur. Both appear as an arced line over or under a series of notes. Ties connect one of more notes of the same pitch and result in one longer note. For example two tied quarter notes of the same pitch are played as one half note. Slurs connect notes of different pitches and indicate that the series of notes should be played in a very smooth, connected way, without pause or breath. When a passage is to be slurred you might find the term legato written beneath the staff at the beginning of that passage.
There are articulations written between notes like the breath mark or the caesura (commonly called railroad tracks). A breath mark is an apostrophe written between two notes and literally means to take a breath or pause without effecting the actual tempo. Caesura is indicated by two parallel lines situated at about a 45 degree angle between two notes. It indicates a pause during which time is not counted. The artistic factor determining when to resume counting lies with the performer or conductor.
This article touches on just some of the most common articulations. Many articulations are specific to a particular instrument, necessitated by the method of playing that instrument. An example of one would be pizzicato (pizz. written at the beginning of the passage), the act of plucking the string of an instrument that is usually bowed (like a violin,viola or cello). The term arco would indicate the return to bowing. As you can see and as stated earlier, articulations are an extensive topic and one that must be learned gradually over the course of your studies.
Students begin practicing a piece by focusing on just the written notes, the rhythms and the tempo. Once you get that far you have something that resembles the music you are familiar with but you notice that it just doesn’t feel right. It’s empty, dry, shallow. That’s when you know you are ready to add the dynamics and articulations which will bring the music to life. If you have already added the dynamics we discussed last time you can now focus on the articulations. Like dynamics they are subjective, open to the interpretation of the performer and effected by the relationship of what comes before and after.
The mechanics of how to play articulations are different for each instrument and situation and absolutely require the expertise of a teacher who can demonstrate different techniques. Different techniques are appropriate for different styles and genres and even within a piece and each will yield a slightly different sound, feeling or effect. Simplifying the definition of each term as I did earlier is really a bit of an injustice. Though it is true that a staccato note is short and detached there are many degrees of short and detached all of which can be appropriate within that narrow sounding definition.
Dynamics added color to your music but the shades were somewhat limited, we can say by analogy, they are limited to the primary shades of the rainbow. When you combine dynamics and articulations, in all of their many combinations and variations, the result is that you have the potential to add all of the infinite shades of the entire spectrum to the music you play.
Like dynamics, articulations are often written into the music you are playing by the composer or arranger and because there can be more than one arrangement of the piece you can find different dynamic and articulation markings in different publications. Again, once you learn to play those suggested by the markings, it is time to experiment with your own ideas.