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What is Articulation in Music?

In the English language, we come across articulation all the time. Consequently, we wouldn’t be able to express ourselves correctly without using it. Yet, it is hard to define it in words, which does seem contradictory.

In its most basic form, it means to say or pronounce something so that it can be heard. Also, so that it can be clearly understood. It adds interpretation to the words being spoken to make them explanatory. And it adds emphasis where it is needed. Articulation also exists in music. But what is articulation in music? Is it the same thing? 


Music Is Its Own Language

Music Is Its Own Language

It can be said that music is very much like a language. Furthermore, it is explanatory and gives us information and in some ways communicates with us.

The only difference is that music doesn’t use words as language does. It uses signs and symbols to convey its meaning. Additionally, just like there are indicators in language to tell us how to say a word, the same exists in music.

Do We Whisper or Shout?

The way we articulate our language allows us to do both. So it is with music. Some rules and indicators tell us where the notes are loud or quiet. Lengthened or shortened. The rules are structural. And this allows us to create phrases and passages that are longer, like a symphony.

Some Basic Instruction in Music

You may not realize it, but the first time you pick up your instrument and start to learn music, you begin to articulate. Musically, that is. You see and understand the messages that are given to you.

Here is an example…

Some Basic Instruction in Music

What We Can See from this short piece of music

  • Each note is placed in a specific line or a given space – that tells us the pitch of each note.
  • Each note has a tail or a stem – tells us the note is an eighth note or a quaver.
  • The 4/4 time signature – tells us how many beats in the bar we sing or play.

In this example, there is no key signature placed next to the time signature where you would normally find it. But, even its absence tells us something. No key signature means the key is C, as there are no sharps or flats to show.

You could call this basic music articulation. It is articulating to us basic information about how the piece is played. But we are going to look a bit deeper into this because the articulation we are discussing is an extra level of parameters.

The Magnificent Seven

There are seven main types of articulation in music, each with its descriptive marker. Therefore, if we want an answer to the question, “What is articulation in music?” we will need to know these.

  • The Slur.
  • Staccato.
  • Staccatissimo.
  • Accent.
  • Tenuto.
  • Fermata.
  • Marcato.

You will come across other markings occasionally, such as ornaments. But they are a little bit different from articulation which is why they are not included here. I have included below the same short melody we have already looked at above. 

The Magnificent Seven

You can see that six of the eight notes have articulation marks. Notes seven and eight share an articulation which I shall explain as the first example. Let’s look at each.

The Slur

Some would say it’s a slang term for its real appellation, “Legato.” But it does describe its action quite well. As you can see from the diagram and looking at notes six and seven (D and C), it covers more than one note. It is the only articulation we are looking at that does this.

This mark tells the musician or the singer that those notes are played as one phrase that is connected. Those playing woodwind instruments would not take a breath. Neither would a singer. 

The violin and other similar instruments would play all the notes with one stroke of the bow. You will sometimes hear this referred to as playing a “Legato” phrase.

More Than Two Notes

Slurs, or Legato phrasing, are not limited to just two notes. They can encompass any number of notes that are practical, as we can see in this example.


Slurs will always occur between notes that are different. By that, I mean not at the same pitch. You will need to differentiate between Slurs and “Tied Notes.” Tied notes are different because they are notes of the same pitch that are ‘tied’ together. This lengthens the time the note is played. The Slur encompasses different notes and is not an instruction about timing.


Playing Staccato could be described as playing the opposite of Legato, or the Slur. This mark indicates that you play each note separately. This is whether it is a single note or a group of notes.

If you look back at our second diagram. You will see the first note of the melody, and E has a dot below the head of the note. It can appear either above or below, depending on the position of the note on the stave lines. This is the Staccato marking, and every note marked with it must be played, so it is not attached to the note that follows it.


If you know any Italian, you will know when “issimo” is added as a suffix to a word; it means very. Therefore, to add it to Staccato, it will mean “very” staccato. In fact, very short sharp, stabbing notes. Each completely and audibly detached from the notes around it.

On our diagram, the descriptive mark is placed below the fifth note, the A, and resembles a solid pyramid. As with most articulation marks, it is written below notes that have stems pointing up. And above notes with stems pointing down.

The Accent

The Accent mark tells the musician that they need to accent or play a particular note louder. It adds an attack to how the note is played. It is not intended to lengthen the note. On our diagram, the symbol for Accent is shown over the third note, or the C, and looks like this…

The Accent


This is an articulation that can sometimes cause a little bit of confusion. The Tenuto is an instruction to the musician to ensure the note is held for its full value. In Italian, Tenuto means to hold.

It is not the same as Legato because notes are not merged into each other. It is also different from Staccato because the note isn’t shortened into a stab effect. On our diagram, the Tenuto mark is shown under the second note, the G. 

It resembles a small line like a hyphen and can be placed either above or below the note. This will be determined by how the stem is positioned on the note.


Each of the music articulation methods we have looked at has only been relevant to how the notes are played. That said, the Fermata is the exception because it is the only one that makes a change to the beat of the music.

It is essentially an instruction to hold or pause. Telling the musician that the note or chord or even a rest should be held. And held longer than its usual value. It is an instruction that is open to a certain amount of interpretation. It can either be held, creating a very small difference, or if the conductor so decides, it can be held to create suspense.

This makes the music feel suspended and waiting for something to happen. It’s often used at the end of a movement or a particular melody. On our diagram, it is the sixth note or the G. Its mark looks like an eye with an eyebrow over it. Or perhaps half a circle with a dot inside.


This articulation is very much like the previous accent we looked at. However, the Marcato is much more pronounced. The symbol mark for marcato is shown in the diagram over the fourth note, the B.

Marcato notes are played more forcefully than all of the other notes that are around it. As a result, even when the notes are “accented” notes, the Marcato must stand out.

There is an interesting thing about the way the Marcato mark is written. Irrespective of whether the stem of the note is pointed up or down, the mark for Marcato is placed above it.

Articulation Can Be Specific to Certain Instruments

This is one of the theoretical structures of music that can have slightly different interpretations. It will depend on what instrument you are playing. It certainly has a variety of techniques if you are singing in a choir.

Furthermore, different techniques will apply. As an example, on a bowed instrument, Legato will want you to encourage the vibration of the string between the notes.  

Playing Staccato will involve a technique that involves touching the string with your bow or your hand to stop the vibration. However, woodwind instruments don’t rely on such techniques. That’s because you use your tongue to construct the notes. Certain rules apply to different instruments, but they are technical playing issues and not for here.

Finding More Resources on Music Articulation

Music Theory becomes as interesting and in-depth as you want it to be. However, if you are serious about playing, articulation is something you must understand. So, here is some reading material on articulation in music.

Want to Learn More About Music Theory?

Our experts can help with that, so have a look at our handy articles on What Is a Major ChordWhat Is Negative HarmonyWhat is Binary Form in MusicWhat Is A Half Diminished ChordWhat is a Motif in Music, and What Is Theme And Variation In Music for more useful information on music theory.

Likewise, you may also want to upgrade your instrument to better understand articulation. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Alto Saxophones, and the Best Tenor Saxophones you can buy in 2023.

What is Articulation in Music – Final Thoughts

We’ve looked at some musical articulation markings and applications. While there are others, these are the ones you are most likely to encounter.

The thing to remember is that they need to be played in context, with sympathy to the music and what is going on around it. That is one of the jobs of a conductor. To make sure you know what he is expecting to hear from you with your articulation. Music, just like language, needs its articulation to get the most from it.

So, until next time, let your music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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