Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is Legato? Learn What Effect Legato Has on Music and What You Need for Good Legato Technique

Written by MasterClass

Jun 19, 2019 • 3 min read

If you’ve heard music that’s played in smooth, fluid phrases where one note seemingly bleeds into another, you’ve heard legato. This playing technique, one of the most popular in all of music, transcends countless eras, genres, and instruments.

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What Is Legato?

Legato is a musical performance technique that produces fluid, continuous motion between notes. Each individual note is played to its maximum duration and then blends directly into whatever note follows.

Legato notes are often slurred; that is, a group of notes is played together in one down-bow or up-bow. In the music, a slur looks like a curved line over the notes that are all in one bow.

How Does Legato Sound on Various Instruments?

Legato passages sound different on different instruments, due to specifics of construction, timbre, tunings, and the range of notes available.

  • On a string instrument such as violin, viola, cello, or double bass, multiple notes are sounded on a single bow stroke. Composers will often write musical phrases that enable players to sound consecutive notes on the same string in order to facilitate this. String players famous for their legato technique include the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
  • On an electric guitar, legato involves many of the same techniques, only a bow is replaced with a plectrum such as a plastic pick. Because a pick naturally produces a percussive sound, guitarists compensate by performing hammer-ons and pull-offs with their fretting hand. This allows them to sound notes without using the pick, and it creates a smoother overall timbre. Guitarists who are well known for their legato technique include Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, John McLaughlin, and George Benson.
  • On a piano, a heavy legato technique often involves players sounding the next note before the current note has fully elapsed. Because a piano note can be sounded with only a single finger, it is possible to depress one piano key before you have fully lifted up on the prior key. Classical pianists known for their legato technique include Arthur Rubinstein (a famous interpreter of Chopin) and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Jazz pianists known for their legato technique include Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
  • Woodwind instruments naturally lend themselves to legato articulation, as many notes can cascade off a single breath. For examples, seek out John Coltrane’s genre-bending Ascension record or the Mozart flute concerto in G major.
  • Some brass instruments lend themselves well to legato playing (trumpet, cornet), and some do not (tuba). French horns can play gorgeous legato passages, although it requires expert technique from the player.
  • In vocal music legato singing involves sustaining a series of vowels with minimal interruption from consonants. The bel canto vocal style that dominated 18th and 19th century music made heavy use of legato technique. On the other hand, legato is less effective when lyrics need to be clearly articulated. As such, it’s rarely used in lyric-centric music like folk and hip hop.

What Effect Does Legato Have on Music?

Legato technique is known for conveying elegance, fluidity, tranquility, and a sense of graceful motion.

In film music, legato strings are often used in moments of high romance or in impressionistic wide shots of cities and vistas.

In both classical and popular music, it’s frequently used in speedy sections because it’s easier to play faster when notes can slur into one another.

What Do You Need for Good Legato Technique?

The secrets to good legato technique depend on your instrument.

  • String players need finger strength in their left hand to allow them to execute the rapid hammer-ons, pull-offs, and repositioning necessary to play long fluid passages.
  • Woodwind players, brass players, and vocalists need excellent breath control and stamina, since long legato passages require constant air in order to articulate every note.

Developing pristine legato technique can be a lifelong quest for even the best musicians, but they pursue it nonetheless because legato sounds are so essential to music.

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