MUSC 101 Music Fundamentals - Spring 2012


[Overview] [Syllabus]

Articulation refers to nuances in how notes are played. Phrasing and attack are two general categories of articulation.


Phrasing refers to grouping notes in "musical sentences." Singers and wind players have to breathe when they play. The places they breathe represent phrase boundaries. Part of the study of music is identifying where breathing occurs so that the musical phrases make sense.

Instruments like the piano and guitar do not require breath pressure to produce the sound. However, good pianists and guitarists separate musical phrases with subtle silences that bring the music to life.


Attack refers to the shaping of the musical sound by touch or pressure. The attack can be smooth and gradual or sharp and sudden. The note can increase in volume and intensity or decrease in volume and intensity. Some instruments can vary the timbre of a note depending on how the sound is produced. A voice can be mellow or raspy, a guitar can be sweet or metallic, a trumpet can be piercing or growling.

Articulation Symbols

There are eight articulation symbols used in the following example.

Articulation symbols picture

Symbol Name Comments
Phrase curve picture Phrase Played legato (smoothly connected)
crescendo hairpin picture Crescendo Getting louder
decrescendo hairpin picture Decrescendo Getting softer
accent picture Accent Play louder than surrounding notes
staccato picture Staccato Short, detached
breath mark picture Comma Breath mark
tenuto picture Tenuto Emphasize, sustain
phrase release picture (Phrase Release) Last note is slightly shorter than written value to allow for breath between phrases

Phrases, Ties, Slurs

A curved line connecting two or more notes can have three distinct meanings.

phrase, slur, tie  picture


A phrase indicates that a group of three or more notes is to be legato.

Legato and Staccato

Legato and staccato are articulation opposites. Legato means to play the notes as smoothly connected as possible. Staccato means to play the notes as short and crisp and detached as possible.


A slur connects two notes of different pitch. Every instrument has its own technique of playing slurs. The general effect is that the second note is softer and slightly shorter than the first note.


A tie connects two notes of the same pitch on the same line or space. A tie adds the duration of the second note to the duration of the first note. Only the first note is played.


A dot associated with a note can have two distinct meanings.

Augmentation Dot

Augmentation dots increase the duration of a note or rest by 50%. An augmentation dot is always placed in the space to right of note head. If the note has a flag, the dot is placed to right of flag

augmentation dot picture

Staccato Dot

A staccato dot is placed directly above or below the note head.

staccato dot picture


The > symbol is called an accent. A note with an accent is played louder than its neighbors.

A sudden strong accent is called sforzando and is indicated by this symbol sforzando symbol.


The – symbol is called tenuto and is the opposite of staccato. It means the note is to be slightly stressed or "leaned on" making sure it gets its full duration.


A comma is used to indicate a deliberate breath or break between phrases.


A fermata indicates a pause. The length of the pause is undefined and is left up to the discretion of the performer. Fermatas are placed above or below the staff as shown in the following example.

fermata symbol

Articulation Examples

Listen to the following examples. Notice how the phrase markings, staccatos, accents, and slurs affect the performance.

Articulation Example 1 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon
Articulation Example 2 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon
Articulation Example 3 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon
Articulation Example 4 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon
Articulation Example 5 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon
Articulation Example 6 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon
Articulation Example 7 Unable to play MP3 Speaker icon

[Overview] [Syllabus]

Revised by John Ellinger, Spring 2012.