Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is the Difference Between Legato and Staccato?

Written by MasterClass

Jun 11, 2019 • 4 min read

When a composer notates music on a page, she will almost invariably indicate pitches, note durations, and perhaps chords. These markings tell a player what notes to sound and for how long. But they don’t necessarily tell the player how to sound those notes. The notes could come out in a fluid continuous run, or they could be chopped up into shorter, more percussive durations. The difference between these styles of playing is the difference between legato and staccato.

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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.

  • 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.

What Is Staccato?

Sonically speaking, staccato is the opposite of legato. Notes do not flow into one another. Each individual note is sounded briskly; it intentionally leaves a small rest at the end of its allotted duration. Staccato playing is, by its nature, more jaunty and percussive than legato playing.

In classical music, staccato 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 playing 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 Is the Difference Between Legato and Staccato?

The difference between legato and staccato starts with articulation technique, but these effectively change the entire character of the music. The same set of notes with the same duration and dynamics can sound entirely different when played with either legato or staccato technique.

In practice, most of the best music contains passages of both staccato and legato playing. Toggling back and forth between the two creates endless possibilities for composers and performers alike.

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