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Articulation marks in Oxford Music Online

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Articulation marks.

Symbols appended to musical notation which indicate to the performer the manner in which particular notes and phrases should be played.

1. Introduction.

Until the late 18th century the only signs commonly used to indicate distinctions of articulation were the slur and the staccato mark (a dot, a vertical stroke, or a wedge) placed above or below the note head. In the 19th century composers became concerned to specify their requirements with ever greater precision, and other forms of articulation mark were introduced, though only a few of these were widely adopted. The principal meaning of the slur has remained relatively constant, though the manner of its employment has varied greatly over the centuries. Except where slurs are written over a succession of notes on the same pitch to indicate portato, they specify that notes of different pitches should be performed without separation, that is, legato. There is, strictly speaking, no greater or lesser degree of connectedness; terms such as molto legato in slurred passages cannot affect the degree of connection between notes within a slur, they can only mean that there should be the minimum possible separation between slurred groups. Staccato marks, on the other hand, either alone or in combination with a slur, have been employed to indicate every type and degree of separation, from the barely articulated to the very sharply detached, and have sometimes had implications of accent as well as of separation. The interpretation of these marks in specific instances will be dependent on such factors as period, nationality, musical context, and the known or inferred practices of individual composers. Other forms of articulation and accent marks (the two functions are seldom entirely discrete) have also varied considerably in their meaning between different composers and traditions.

2. The slur.

From the 16th century slurs were used with growing frequency to specify legato, especially in the context of notes sung to a single syllable; slurs in instrumental music were slower to appear, and in 17th- and 18th-century music many passages of unslurred notes were undoubtedly intended to be performed with slurred bowstrokes or in single unarticulated breaths. The inclusion of slurs became more common during the 18th century, and some composers, notably J.S. Bach, used them extensively to indicate subtle and varied patterns of legato groups. But many composers seem not to have been particularly conscientious about marking slurs consistently; in most cases it was the responsibility of the performer, if the composer was not available to determine the matter in person, to decide firstly whether unslurred notes should, in fact, be played legato, and, if not, what degree and style of articulation to apply. The most careful composers of the later 18th century became increasingly punctilious in marking slurs. Until the early 19th century, however, it was rare for slurs to encompass more notes than could be performed in a single bowstroke or breath, and composers seem to have felt some degree of inhibition about extending them over bar lines; this was the case even in keyboard music where longer passages of continuous legato would have been practicable.

The question of whether slurs, in addition to specifying legato, required that the group of notes over which they stood should be performed in a particular manner has been a subject of much discussion. Slurred groups such as those in much of J.S. Bach’s music, where there is a clear intention to elicit particular patterns of phrasing, were evidently intended to be made audible to the listener, and there are many references in theoretical writing to a manner of performance in which the first note under the slur would receive an accent (sometimes agogic) and the final note


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would be shortened. This mode of execution seems more likely to have been regarded as normal in the 18th century

than in the 19th century; but even at the earlier period not all slurs may have been intended to be performed in this manner, as Türk pointed out. A number of 19th-century writers, including Czerny, limited this type of performance to groups of two or three notes, and it is clear that many slurs, particularly successions of longer slurs beginning on metrically strong beats, were intended merely to indicate a general legato. But other information (for instance Mendelssohn’s reference to the distinct phrasing of slurred pairs as a practice of Handel’s period that was not now widely understood) suggests that many 19th-century composers did not expect even short slurs to receive a particularly distinctive style of performance. Nevertheless, Brahms’s correspondence with Joachim makes clear that,

in keyboard playing at any rate, Brahms regarded a shortening of the second note in slurred pairs as obligatory, and a

similar treatment of longer groups as ‘a freedom and refinement in performance, which, to be sure, is generally


3. Treatment of unmarked notes.

The style of performance envisaged for notes that have neither slurs nor any other kind of articulation mark has also been variable. In the 18th century many composers intended, and musicians inferred, a clearly detached execution of such notes. Some theorists suggested that unmarked notes were to be less detached (or accented) than those with staccato marks. This may have been common practice in the earlier part of the century, when staccato marks were used chiefly in special cases, but even at that time some composers seem to have used staccato marks without implying a more detached or accented execution than normal unslurred notes, simply to ensure that the previous pattern of slurring would be discontinued or that slurs would not be added where they were not wanted; several of these uses of staccato marks appear to be represented in Bach’s autographs. The use of the staccato mark to ensure that notes are not slurred (but not apparently to indicate a degree of separation greater than normal unslurred notes) may account for a considerable proportion of the staccato marks encountered in late 18th-century scores. Despite the

frequently quoted instruction of some influential theorists that unslurred notes (with or without staccato marks) should,

in general, be well separated, it would be rash to apply this rule universally even in moderate or fast music. There

were certainly some schools in which a less detached style was cultivated. This may have been especially the case in Italian performance, while the French represented the opposite pole: hence Quantz’s comment on the short bowstroke of the French and the ‘long dragging stroke’ of the Italians. The so-called détaché, or grand détaché bowstroke of the late-18th- and early-19th-century school of French string players (the Viotti school), which is actually as connected a stroke as can be obtained with separate bows, undoubtedly had its roots in the schools of Tartini and Pugnani, and such tendencies seem also to have been reflected in Leopold Mozart’s treatise and in the Mannheim style. There is some evidence that a similar approach to unslurred notes was adopted in some schools of 18th- century keyboard playing, especially the Italian, and that Clementi’s often cited instruction, to give preference to the legato over the staccato where nothing was indicated, was by no means an innovation. By the 1830s, conceivably, many passages of notes with staccato marks were intended to be played without either physical separation or particular accent, as indicated by the instruction in Spohr’s Violinschule to play a succession of notes marked with staccato strokes ‘in such a manner that in changing from the down- to the up-bow or the reverse no break or chasm may be observed’.

4. The staccato mark.

By the late Baroque period the dot, stroke and wedge (the latter largely confined to printed music) were widely used to indicate the physical separation of one note from the next by means of the replacement of part of its written value with

a rest, or sometimes (though the implication of shortening the marked note seems seldom to have been entirely

absent) to indicate accents. A few composers, for instance Veracini in his Sonate accademiche, devised and employed their own vocabulary of signs, but for the most part there is little evidence to suggest that composers utilized distinct signs for distinct purposes systematically, if at all. In the generation of Bach and Handel staccato marks were very rarely used, and the appropriate articulation for unslurred notes would generally have been determined by the performer on the basis of musical context, taking into account such factors as the type of piece and any terms of tempo or expression supplied by the composer. From the mid-18th century however, authors of tutors and theory books began increasingly to discuss and describe a variety of staccato marks. Writers were divided between those who employed a single staccato mark and those who advocated a distinction between the dot and the stroke. C.P.E. Bach considered only one mark for unslurred staccato necessary; however, in his Versuch, stressing


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that one mark did not mean one kind of execution, he observed that the performer must execute the staccato in different ways according to the length of note, the tempo, and the dynamic. Bach’s preference for a single staccato mark for unslurred notes was echoed by, among others, Leopold Mozart (1756), Reichardt (1776), Türk (1789), J.A. Hiller (1792), A.E. Müller (1804) and Spohr (1832). Others, including Quantz (1752), Riepel (1757), Löhlein (1774), G.J. Vogler (1778), H.C. Koch (1802), J.H. Knecht (1803) and J.L. Adam (1804) utilized two signs with different

meanings in their instruction books. Importantly, such distinctions seem essentially to have been intended as a means

of instruction within the context of a theoretical study; this was explicitly recognized by Joseph Riepel in his

Gründliche Erklärung der Tonordnung (1757) where, after describing a sophisticated range of articulation marks that signified various kinds of bowstroke, he remarked: ‘I have included the strokes and dots again only for the sake of explanation; for one does not see them in pieces of music except perhaps sometimes when it is necessary on account

of clarity’.

Despite the extensive literature on Mozart’s articulation marks, much of which concerns itself with a supposed distinction between dots and strokes, there is no compelling evidence that classical composers were conscientiously employing two forms of staccato mark with differentiated meaning on unslurred notes; no such distinctions are apparent, even in the music of composers who advocated two forms in their theoretical writing. Nevertheless, composers of Mozart’s generation employed staccato marks much more extensively than their predecessors. In manuscript sources of the late 18th and early 19th century these appear as dots or strokes of various sizes over detached notes, and in combination with slurs primarily as dots, though strokes under slurs are occasionally encountered. All these have their counterparts in printed editions, yet consistent relationships between composers’ autographs and printed editions are rare; sometimes in sets of orchestral parts, as in a number of Beethoven first editions, dots are used in one part throughout and strokes in another, apparently depending on the engraver’s preferred or available punch for making staccato marks.

A special use of the staccato mark, mentioned in C.P.E. Bach’s Versuch, can be found in the second movement of

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata op.30 no.3 in G. In the autograph score, throughout this movement Beethoven consistently placed a staccato stroke not over the first or second note on each appearance of a dotted figure first heard in the opening bars, but over the dot of prolongation; the placement is so careful and consistent in each case that it would seem to be deliberate, for such a consistent positioning of the staccato mark after the note head is not typical of Beethoven. The meaning is almost certainly that shown in ex.1, and Beethoven may possibly have derived this notation directly from the passage in C.P.E. Bach’s Versuch, where Bach suggests precisely this relationship of staccato mark and dot of prolongation to signify a rest in such figures.

and dot of prolongation to signify a rest in such figures. Ex.1 5. Other markings. Another


5. Other markings.

Another sign, quite commonly encountered in music of this period, is the wavy line, occasionally under a slur, but normally on its own. Like all these signs it could have a number of meanings. Employed over a succession of notes at the same pitch it seems to have been synonymous with the portato notation of dots under a slur or a slur alone, and this is its probable meaning in the majority of cases during the 18th century. Over single notes, when it was not simply an instruction to divide the note into repeated portato notes, it usually implied some other form of trembling motion, either a vibrato or a tremolo with separately articulated repeated notes; it is frequently found with the latter meaning in string parts in Rossini’s scores. In some piano reductions of orchestral parts of that period the wavy line seems to have been used as the equivalent of the modern abbreviation with white notes joined by multiple beams.

6. Increasing systemization.

From the late 18th century an increasing number of authorities advocated or acknowledged two signs, the dot and the stroke, for staccato on unslurred notes. But there was still no general agreement about precisely what these should


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signify. The majority of late 18th- and early 19th-century German authors who described both signs favoured the stroke as the sharper (‘schärfer’) of the two: in about 1810 F.J. Fröhlich referred, in the Violinschule of his Vollständige … Musikschule, to the stroke as the more powerful staccato (‘der kräftigere Stoss’) and the dot as the gentler one (‘der gelindere’). Yet some authors, for instance G.J. Vogler and his admirer J.H. Knecht seem to have wanted the stroke sharper and longer than the dot: in his Allgemeiner musikalischer Katechismus Knecht described the stroke as indicating that one should give the notes a ‘somewhat sharp and long staccato’ while the dot indicated a short and dainty execution. Schubert, among early 19th-century composers, may have intended a difference. In some of his autographs the distinctions between staccato dots (which match his dots of prolongation) and long narrow staccato strokes is pronounced. As late as the 1830s however the article ‘Abstossen’ in Gustav Schilling’s Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaften still expressed uncertainty about the significance of the two types of staccato mark. By the second half of the 19th century the recognition of two signs with different implications was more or less universal and many major composers undoubtedly employed them in practice. The principal disagreements at this stage were between string players and keyboard players, and between composers in the German and French traditions. In string playing different forms of staccato mark became increasingly linked to specific types of bowing (martelé, spiccato etc.) and, partly because of the varying practices of French and German violinists, these signs acquired conflicting meanings in the two traditions. For Baillot strokes were associated with martelé and dots with sautillé or spiccato, while for Ferdinand David the reverse was the case. Thus German musicians continued to associate the stroke with accented staccato and the dot with lighter staccato, while the French appear, on the whole, to have associated the stroke with a shorter and usually lighter staccato and the dot with a less short and weightier staccato. Although the definition of the shortening effect of staccato marks propounded in J.L. Adam’s Méthode du piano du Conservatoire of 1804, whereby a stroke shortened the note by three quarters, a dot by half and a dot under a slur by one quarter, was repeated in German, English, Italian and other theory books during the 19th century, it cannot be regarded as a reliable guide to the practices of many composers of the period. In any case, as many theorists continued to point out, the degree and type of articulation applied in particular cases was conditioned by many external factors, such as the size of the ensemble, the qualities of the instrument, or the space in which the performance took place.

The ambiguity in the meaning of staccato marks, particularly the question of whether they carried any implications of accent, induced some late 18th- and early 19th-century theorists, for instance Türk and Corri, to propose other symbols to indicate articulation, but these signs remained confined largely to the realm of theory. Interestingly, the uncertainty over the meaning of staccato dots and strokes was still sufficiently strong in the early 20th century for Schoenberg to consider it necessary to explain in the preface to his Serenade op.24 that wedges indicated ‘hard, heavy, staccatoed’ notes and dots ‘light, elastic, thrown (spiccato) ones’.

The inclusion of other articulation marks in manuscript and printed music was relatively uncommon before the 19th century, but by the middle of that century additional signs had been proposed by theorists, and several were beginning to be adopted by composers. This process was encouraged by the growing concern of composers with details of articulation as an essential element in their music and by their determination to exercise greater control over the performer’s interpretation. One consequence was a gradual, but by no means consistent, refinement and narrowing of the meaning of staccato marks, as other signs began to assume some of the functions previously subsumed in those signs. The horizontal line came gradually to be seen as a replacement for the old portato marking, though some conservative musicians, including Brahms, resisted using it in this sense. But initially the line seems to have been regarded rather as an accent marking, indicating a moderately weighty but not sharp execution, and it continued to be used by some composers with this meaning. Sometimes composers seem simply to have regarded it as a method of showing that a note should be held for its full value; however, that meaning may not be as common as is generally believed. By mid-century a number of composers, including Schumann, in line with the suggestions of contemporary theorists, began to use signs that explicitly indicated both accent and articulation (see ex.2). Many later 19th-century composers, including Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner and Dvořák availed themselves of these and other signs to prescribe their articulation and accentuation with ever greater precision. A sophisticated system of articulation marks was proposed by Hugo Riemann and employed in his editions of Classical piano music, specifying articulation and phrasing to a remarkable degree of nicety. Like those of earlier theorists, however, his markings were not generally adopted by composers, though Mahler among others did occasionally utilize the comma (which had periodically been proposed as a music symbol) in Riemann’s sense, to indicate a short articulation. Some 20th- century composers, for example Bartók, have used a very wide range of articulation and accent markings, while others, such as Shostakovich, have contented themselves with a much more limited vocabulary of basic signs.


Articulation marks in Oxford Music Online

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Articulation marks in Oxford Music Onlin e Sayfa 5 / 5 Ex.2 For further information and


For further information and bibliography see also ARTICULATION AND PHRASING.


P. Mies: ‘Die Artikulationzeichen Strich und Punkt bei Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’, DMf, xi (1958), 428–55

H.J. Macdonald: ‘Two Peculiarities of Berlioz's Notation’, ML, l (1969), 25–36


Temperley: ‘Berlioz and the Slur’, ML, l (1969), 388–92


Brown: ‘Bowing Styles, Vibrato and Portamento in Nineteenth-Century Violin Playing’, JRMA, cxiii (1988), 97–128


Badura-Skoda: ‘A Tie is a Tie is a Tie’, EMc, xvi (1988), 84–8


Rosenblum: Performance Practices in Classical Piano Music (Bloomington, 1988)


Carter: ‘The String Tremolo in the 17th Century’, EMc, xix (1991), 49–60


Neumann: ‘Dots and Strokes in Mozart’, EMc, xxi (1993), 429–35


Brown: ‘Dots and Strokes in Late 18th- and 19th-Century Music’, EMc, xxi (1993), 593–610


Brown: ‘Ferdinand David's Editions of Beethoven’, Performing Beethoven, ed. R. Stowell (Cambridge, 1994), 117–49


Brown: ‘String Playing Practices in the Classical Orchestra’, Basler Jb für historische Musikpraxis, Jg.17 (1984), 41–64


Brown: Classical and Romantic Performing Practice (Oxford, 1999)

Clive Brown

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