Reading Music: What Is a Slur?

Understanding the Slur in Sheet Music and How It Is Different From a Tie

Slurs. Image Courtesy of Denelson83 from Wikimedia Commons

A slur is a musical notation that informs the musician to play a sequence of 2 or more notes without pausing in between notes, like slurring all the notes together.

In more technical terms, a slur means you should play the notes in legato. Legato is a musical term that tells you how the composer originally intended the notes to be expressed. In terms of legato, notes should be bound together and played smoothly.

Tie Versus Slur

Ties and slurs may be confusing to some because both musical notations are represented by a curved line. However, the function of a tie is very different from the function of a slur. 

A tie is a curved line that connects two notes of the same pitch; the second note is not played but its value is added to the first note. On the other hand, a slur requires two or more notes that have the same or different pitch to be combined in legato. While ties are mainly concerned with note duration, a slur affects note duration and articulation.

So how do you tell the difference on sheet music? Think of ties as being curved lines in regular font, while slurs are curved lines but in italics. Meaning, slurs will be curved lines but slightly tilted, either up or down depending on the notes involved.

Different Music Mediums

A slur can also mean something slightly different depending on the medium of music.

For vocalists, it means that a syllable should be sung to several notes. In other words, it should last for more than one note. For bowed string players, a slur means to play a group of notes in one bow. This means to play the notes without changing the direction of the bow.

For players of wind instruments, it means to play 2 or more notes in the same breath without using the tongue to rearticulate the notes.

 For guitar players, a slur means that the notes should be played without plucking each string independently.

Notation Placement

Slurs are positioned either underneath notes (when the stems of the notes are pointing up) or above notes (when the stems of the notes are pointing down).