Music Articulation

Musical notes hanging on clothes lines
Here's how to spot the articulations in musical notes. antonioiacobelli / Getty Images

In music, an articulation refers to the style that affects the length or execution of one or several notes in relation to each other. Articulations are expressed with articulation marks, which modify the execution of notes and create relationships between them. In a sense, articulation marks are a relative form of expression because their differentiation relies upon their context. 

In other common musical languages, articulations are referred to as accentuazione in Italian, articulation in French and Artikulation in German.

Common Articulation Marks

Common articulation marks include the staccato, legato, staccatissimo, marcato,  détaché,  rinforzando, slur, and sforzando. When an articulation is notated in music, a symbol or line is written above the note to indicate the type of articulation.

For example, a staccato is indicated with a dot, a slur is shown with a curved line that connects two or more notes, and an accent mark is written with a symbol that resembles a > sign. Some composers will use articulation marks quite frequently in their compositions, whereas others might leave the music bare of articulations. In both cases, musicians may be inclined to add or edit articulations if they are trying to achieve a specific sound or expression. 

Main Articulation Categories

While there are several different types of articulations, most of them will fall into four general categories:

  • Dynamic Change: These are articulations that indicate a difference in volume compared to their surrounding notes and might include the sforzando or marcato.
  • Length Change: Articulations that affect the length of a note can either shorten or elongate the note. Some of these articulations include the staccato, staccatissimo and tenuto. 
  • Relationship Change: Although every articulation indicates a difference compared to its surrounding notes, some articulations affect the execution for a group of notes. Some common usages of these types of articulations are slurs, which create a group of legato notes that are linked together smoothly, or détaché, which separates the notes from each other in a detached style. 

    Music Articulation Technique

    The technique required to execute articulations varies depending on which instrument you play. Not only are the articulations approached differently, they can sometimes have slightly different meanings based on the instrument. Part of the reason that articulations are so unique to each instrument is that many instruments require technical finesse from varying muscle groups to create the articulation.

    For example, brass and woodwind players must use their tongues to define articulations because they can alter the airflow to the instrument in that method. A string player, such as a violinist, violist or cellist, will need to refine the small muscle groups in their right hand and larger muscle groups in their right arm to create different articulations. A pianist or harpist will need to learn finger and arm techniques for both hands to create different articulations, and pianists have the added value of the piano pedals in order to assist with the articulations. 

    Learning how to play articulations requires time and practice, which is why many music etudes are written that can help musicians focus on perfecting one articulation at a time. 

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    Kraemer, Brandy. "Music Articulation." ThoughtCo, Nov. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/articulation-definition-2701872. Kraemer, Brandy. (2017, November 2). Music Articulation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/articulation-definition-2701872 Kraemer, Brandy. "Music Articulation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/articulation-definition-2701872 (accessed November 18, 2017).