Learn all about articulation in music with Hoffman Academy
Articulation in music refers to the many different ways that notes can be played on an instrument. They can be given different lengths, volumes, styles of attack, and cut-offs.
On the piano, articulation includes staccato (short sounds that quickly cut off), legato (smoothly connected notes), portato (separated notes), and marcato (notes that are much louder than the notes around them). Read on to learn more about these and other kinds of articulation.
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What is articulation in music?
Good articulation in speech means that words are said clearly and with precision. In music it means that performers can choose to play notes with distinct styles to get the effect they want.
Articulation is a wonderful way to spice up a musical performance. It adds variety and interest. Composers and performers use articulation to convey emotions, to emphasize certain notes or passages, and to explore a greater range of possibilities for the way an instrument can sound.
Examples of articulation in music
Here are some basic examples of articulation in music and how they’re written:
Staccato means to play a note and then quickly release it. On the piano this is done by pressing the note down and immediately lifting your hand. Staccato can be used to add mystery or excitement to music.
Staccatisimo or Spiccato is like staccato, but the notes are even shorter.
Portato means to give notes a little bit of separation. This is done by cutting off the note just before beginning to play the next one. It gives the music a strong pulse and puts a little emphasis on each individual note.
Legato means to play notes smoothly connected together, with no break in the sound between them.
Tenuto means to hold the note for its full time value. When playing tenuto, you usually give each note a slightly stronger attack or emphasis than you would when playing legato.
Fermata means to hold a note longer than its usual time value. The music pauses for as long as the performer wants to hold the note.
Accent means to play a note louder and stronger than the other notes around it. This articulation is used to emphasize certain notes or chords.
Marcato is like an accent mark, but even more powerful.
Visit the Hoffman Academy store to download our FREE Articulations Guide for a handy reference sheet you can print out to remind you of all these articulations and what they look like.
How to teach articulation in music
Articulation can be introduced early in music studies as a way to add fun and variety to playing the piano. The best way to teach articulation is by example. Staccato is usually the first articulation for a student to learn. Demonstrate by playing staccato on the piano and then ask the student to imitate. Be sure to explain that the release is done not only with the fingers, but also by lifting the wrist. You can watch Mr. Hoffman teach how to play staccato here.
One activity that can help students solidify the articulations in their mind is to have them pretend to be an orchestra conductor. Tell them to lead their orchestra to play with each different articulation. For staccato, they can conduct with short, bouncy movements. For legato, they might let their hands glide smoothly. For marcato, they might make a big, strong movement to let their imaginary orchestra know to hit the note hard. This is a good kinesthetic way to get the student thinking about the effect each articulation has on the sound of the music.
Another way to help students with articulation is to have them speak or sing words that imitate the way the notes should sound. For staccato, say “plink.” For legato, sing the line with a smooth, connected vowel sound like “aaaah” or “oooo.” For an accented note, say something like “Bam!” or “Pow!” Without playing, have students speak or sing their way through the piece they’re working on while pointing to each measure. Then have them speak or sing while playing it.
How to improve articulation
A great way to improve articulation is to practice your regular finger exercises using the articulations you’re working on. For instance, if you want to get better at staccato, try playing the scales, arpeggios, and chords you already know with staccato articulation. This helps you focus on developing your articulation skills.
Here’s another fun way to practice articulation. Get a set of index cards and on each one draw a different articulation symbol listed above, or you can print Articulations Flashcards from our Hoffman Academy store (free for premium members). Next, find a practice partner. Give them your set of cards and have them sit next to you at the piano. Tell your practice partner to place one card at a time on the music stand while you play a song. Then choose a song that you know well and start playing. As your practice partner puts a card on the stand, play with that articulation until they take the card down and put up another one.
Add variety and excitement with articulation in music
Learning and performing with the right articulation can bring so much more to your music making. Playing notes with articulations may seem tricky at first, but give it a try! After some practice you’ll soon be able to enjoy adding this new dimension to your piano playing.