Articulation (music)

Articulation is a fundamental musical parameter that determines how a single note or other discrete event is sounded. Articulations primarily structure an event's start and end, determining the length of its sound and the shape of its attack and decay. They can also modify an event's timbre, dynamics, and pitch.[1] Musical articulation is analogous to the articulation of speech, and during the Baroque and Classical periods it was taught by comparison to oratory.[2]

Western music has a set of traditional articulations that were standardized in the 19th Century[3] and remain widely used.[1] Composers are not limited to these, however, and may invent new articulations as a piece requires.[4] When writing electronic and computer music, composers can design articulations from the ground up.[5]

In addition to following instructions given by composers, performers choose how to articulate the events of a score independently, in accordance with their interpretation of it. Until the 17th Century, it was rare to mark articulations in a score, and even during the Baroque period they were uncommon apart from ornaments, leaving them up to the performer and the standards of the time. Even during the Classical period, the interpretation of articulation marks varied far more widely than it does today.[6] Articulations have now become more tightly standardized, but performers still must consider the fashions of their time, methods of playing that were current at the time the piece they are performing was written, the context of their performance, the style of the music, and their own taste and analysis when deciding how to articulate a score's events.[7]

Types of articulations

There are many types of articulation, each with a different effect on how the note is played. In music notation articulation marks include the slur, phrase mark, staccato, staccatissimo, accent, sforzando, rinforzando, and legato. A different symbol, placed above or below the note (depending on its position on the staff), represents each articulation.

TenutoHold the note in question its full length (or longer, with slight rubato), or play the note slightly louder.
MarcatoIndicates a short note, long chord, or medium passage to be played louder or more forcefully than surrounding music.
StaccatoSignifies a note of shortened duration or detached (not legato)
LegatoIndicates musical notes are to be played or sung smoothly and connected.


Brass and woodwind instruments

Woodwind and brass instruments generally produce articulations by tonguing, the use of the tongue to break the airflow into the instrument.

Certain palate cues can help student musicians master articulations. For example, the syllable "dah" demonstrates one placement of the tongue to articulate notes. In most cases, using the near tip of the tongue, is the best way of articulation. However, different articulation markings require different tongue placement. Smooth, connected passages may require an articulation more reminiscent of the syllable "la," while heavy, sharp notes may be attacked with an articulation similar to "tah."

Furthermore, the implementation of double-tonguing may be required when many articulations are required in rapid succession. Double-tonguing can be simulated by repeating the syllables "dig" and "guh" in rapid succession. Other syllables for double tonguing are "tuh" and "kuh," "tih" and "kuh," and any other combination of syllables that utilize the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth and then the back of the tongue against the back of the mouth. Double-tonguing is an articulation primarily used by brass players, but the use of double-tonguing by woodwind players is becoming more common.

A third, rare form of articulation for wind players is "doodle tonguing." The name of this articulation comes from the sound, doodle, one would make if she were to sound her voice while performing the articulation. Doodle-tonguing is achieved by moving the tip of the tongue up and down quickly to block the air stream momentarily on the way up, and again on the way down.

Bowed instruments

Bowed stringed instruments use different bowing techniques to achieve different articulations, varying the speed, pressure, and angle of the bow. Another technique is playing without the bow by plucking the strings. This is called pizzicato.

Compound articulations

Occasionally, articulations can be combined to create stylistically or technically correct sounds. For example, when staccato marks are combined with a slur, the result is portato, also known as articulated legato. Tenuto markings under a slur are called (for bowed strings) hook bows. This name is also less commonly applied to staccato or martellato (martelé) markings.


Apagados (from the Spanish verb apagar, "to mute") refers to notes that are played dampened or "muted," without sustain. The term is written above or below the notes with a dotted or dashed line drawn to the end of the group of notes that are to be played dampened. The technique is chiefly written for bowed or plucked instruments. Modernists refer to the 'apogado' (slightly different spelling) as "palm mute." On the guitar, the musician dampens the strings with the palm of the hand and plucks with the thumb. Strictly speaking, the term dampened is correct for this effect in music; since to mute means to silence. Illustration of the apagados may be found in the work of composer for Spanish guitar, Gerardo de Altona. See:

See also



  • Schmidt-Jones, Catherine (November 14, 2013). "Articulations". Understanding Basic Music Theory. OpenStax CNX. Retrieved June 24, 2019.
  • Lawson, Colin; Stowell, Robin (2004). The Historical Performance of Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-511-03522-5.
  • Adler, Samuel (2002). The Study of Orchestration (3 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97572-X.
  • Beck, Stephen David (2000). "Designing Acoustically Viable Instruments in Csound". In Boulanger, Richard (ed.). The Csound Book. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-52261-6.


  • Cooper, Helen (1985). Basic Guide to How to Read Music. ISBN 0-399-51122-9.
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