This past semester, one of the things I realized is that I wished I had a visual representation for articulation markings. This led me to recently develop one myself. It is based on the system that I was “raised on”, which has a couple of components to it. This components combined give you an easy way to explain how to interpret different articulations based on previously learned concepts, which I really like. Here we go!
The Three Parts of a Note
I wish I could thank whoever started explaining articulations this way. The concept is that a note has three parts. Label them as you like. I prefer to use 1. Attack/Start of the Note, 2. The Body/Sustain of the Note, 3. The Release/End of the Note.
If you simply explain this idea to students, they can probably come up with an image in their head, especially if you tell them to imagine it this way. Once this idea is established, you can more easily move on to explaining any articulation they’ll come across.
For this next part to be effective, the only thing they need to understand when you introduce basic articulations is dynamics and eighth notes.
“Light and separated, detached”. While my professors may not like me to explain it this way, the most common explanation is that you give the note approximately half the rhythmic value. The way you can explain this within our model is that the Attack and Release of the note are normal, but the Sustain/Body of the note is cut in half.
You can always give yourself wiggle room by saying this is the default, but there may be times when they play it slightly longer than half value. As far as descriptive words, I like to say that the notes should bounce like the sound of a bouncing basketball.
Tenuto – “Smooth and connected”, but not slurred, also indicates stress. In this case, the release/end of the note touches the beginning of the next note (rather than having a rounded release and a hint of separation), and the entire note is played at a slightly louder dynamic (1 level louder or less… the more experienced the student, the more suddle they can make it).
Accent – An accent indicates that a note should be emphasized. I should note that there is some discrepancy as to the name of a “normal accent” and “strong accent” and also how “emphasis” is interpreted. I’m not going to say that one is definitively right over the other, but this is based on what I was raised, and it is a prominent school of thought. A “normal” accent is typically called an “accent”, while a strong accent is called “marcato”. I also believe and explain that in both cases, compared to regular notes, only the start/attack of the note is changed, in which case you attack the note one dynamic level louder than normal and then quickly return to the regular dynamic.
Marcato – The only difference between an Accent and a Marcato is that a marcato indicates to increase the attack dynamic by two levels, then quickly return to the normal dynamic.
In jazz, this symbol also indicates to shorten the length (or sustain/body) of the note, but I don’t believe this should be universal. This is because we also sometimes see an articulation that combines staccato and marcato, and when this happens I can simply explain that you combine the two effects (attack two dynamic levels higher, cut the length/body in half, if the note is short enough don’t worry about getting back down to the regular dynamic). There is no room to do that when you interpret it in the jazz meaning all the time.
And generally speaking, when you see a new articulation marking, it will usually be a combination of one of these four, and you can combine the effects as I just described. And you can give yourself wiggle room by saying that these are default articulations, and occasionally it will be a little different, but when it is different they will be notified of the special circumstance.
A Visual Image of Articulations
The three parts of a note created in my mind a very specific idea of what notes with articulations would look like if we could see them as shapes appearing on a horizontal line. I remembered this from my public school days.
I also have to give some credit to the two gentlemen behind Foundations for a Superior Performance
, Jeff King and Richard Williams. When I started looking for visual aids and other articulation aids, I glanced at the articulation page in their book. I liked how they used rectangles for notes, and were able to clearly show the difference between tenuto, staccato, and normal notes. But it was limited in that they didn’t cover accents, nor marcato.
After I was well into creating this handout, I also found a website for a book called Warm Ups and Beyond
(while looking for Pyramid of Sound visual aids) that does something very similar to what I’ve constructed. The difference is it looks a bit better in color, they use a different shape for the release, and their accent effects the entire note, not just the attack of it.
The end result is this handout, which I now present to you. It’s just something I made in hopes of helping visual learners when it comes time for articulations. What is presented in method books isn’t bad, but it only describes it in words. Speaking of the words, the wording I use in quotes is based on what is outlined in the “Concise Harvard Dictionary of Music and Musicians”, however that book only gets you so far.
The handout is free for all to use. I only ask that if you use it, please let me know, and also whether you use it or not, please give me some constructive feedback on how you think it could be improved. Feel free to leave that feedback in the comment section. Again, your feedback is always welcome!
The method itself is nothing new or innovative, but I hope you found the discussion and/or the handout interesting and helpful. Again, please let me know what you think of the handout! Thank you for reading, and until next time, take care!