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What Is Staccato?
In music, staccato is a playing technique where each individual note is sounded briskly. “Staccato” is Italian for “detached” or “disconnected.”
- Staccato playing intentionally leaves a small rest at the end of each note’s allotted duration.
- Sonically speaking, staccato is the opposite of legato. In legato music, notes flow into one another, sometimes to the point of being slurred. Staccato playing is, by its nature, more jaunty and percussive than legato playing.
- For example, violin staccato can be described as detached, short notes with accents. Staccato is indicated in the music with dots over the notes. “Flying staccato,” also known as “up-bow staccato,” is when short notes are played all in the same bow stroke, stopping the bow for each note (the bow stays on the string). This is indicated in the music with dots over the notes as well as a slur over the group of notes that will be in one bow.
How Is Staccato Notated?
Staccato music is notated with a staccato mark: tiny dots above noteheads. These staccato dots tell players to cut each note short so as to emphasize its individual nature.
Staccato is similar, but definitely not identical, to other playing techniques that emphasize the individuality of notes. These include:
- Martelé. Detached, strongly accented notes.
- Spiccato. A string technique involving detached notes played with a bouncing bow (the bow comes off the string). Generally, spiccato is used in faster passages than staccato—but not always.
- Sautillé. Detached, very rapid bounced strokes played in the middle of the bow. This is marked in the same manner as spiccato and chosen in the context of the music.
- Ricochet. Bouncing several notes in a row with one bow stroke.
- Pizzicato. Plucking the string, most commonly with the right hand. Usually the music says “pizz” to indicate pizzicato, then arco when it’s time to use the bow again. For left hand pizzicato, done with your violin fingers, a “+” is placed over each note that is to be plucked.
How Does Staccato Sound on Various Instruments?
Staccato passages sound different on different instruments, due to specifics of construction, timbre, tunings, and the range of notes available.
In classical music, staccato rhythm is perfectly suited to many dance styles, from gavottes to mazurkas to Viennese waltzes. It also characterizes dance styles still performed today, like polka and tango.
In popular music, staccato style spans many styles, from country and bluegrass to funk to hip hop to jangly indie rock.
- On a stringed instrument, staccato articulation involves short bow strikes that typically alternate between downbow and upbow strokes. The pizzicato technique of playing with fingers naturally lends itself to staccato. String players known for their staccato technique include the violinist/fiddler Mark O’Connor, the cellist Paul Watkins, and the Emerson String Quartet.
- On an electric guitar, sharp pick strokes produce staccato articulations with ease. Country, funk, and punk guitar styles are all known for heavy reliance on staccato. Jazz guitarists like Grant Green and Charlie Christian are famous for their horn-like staccato solos. Country guitarists like Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins are also renowned staccato players.
- Staccato piano sounds jaunty and energetic. It’s popular in musical theater, classical, jazz, blues, and rock styles alike. The Dutch classical pianist Ralph van Raat is a masterful staccato. So are jazz players like Thelonious Monk, Meade “Lux” Lewis, and James P. Johnson.
- Woodwinds are less naturally suited to staccato playing, as they derive their power from sustained breaths. Nonetheless, there are myriad examples of staccato woodwinds, from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to Ornette Coleman’s soundtrack for The Naked Lunch (co-composed with Howard Shore).
- Brass instruments are built for easy staccato playing. While all brass instruments sound good with staccato articulations, trombone and tuba can be particularly effective in this style.
What Effect Does Staccato Have on Music?
Staccato technique is known for conveying urgency, precision, action, and a sense of unyielding motion.
In film music, staccato passages may convey suspense (think of Bernard Hermann’s staccato strings in the horror classic Psycho), but it is also frequently used in scenes involving machinery, innovation, and action.
What Do You Need for Good Staccato Technique?
Playing fast staccato passages can be more difficult than playing fast legato passages because notes cannot be slurred together using hammer-ons, pull-offs, and glissandi. Each note must be attacked separately, and for most instruments, this requires great precision in both your left hand and your right hand, as well as your breath on applicable instruments. As all professional musicians know, it’s simply not possible to mask bad staccato technique. If you can’t play well in this style, the audience will quickly find out.
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