Ties and Slurs – What’s the Difference?

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Ties and slurs can be somewhat confusing, especially to beginner students, because they look so similar. However, ties and slurs have very different functions in music. And once you know what to look for you’ll also notice that there are some visible differences. In this article we’ll discuss the individual differences of both ties and slurs, examine how they are most commonly used, and take a look at some musical examples. Let’s go!

Ties and Slurs: The Functions of Each

Let’s start with ties and what they look like. A tie is a curved line that connects two or more notes of the same pitch. That’s a really important distinction. The two notes connected by a tie must be the same pitch. It does not matter at all if they are different rhythmic values. For example, a tie can connect a quarter note to a half note, as long as the quarter note and half note are both the same pitch (for example, a ‘G’). 

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The next visual distinction with ties is that there are no notes in between the tie. The tie connects two adjoining, side-by-side notes. The notes can be in different measures, but they must be side-by-side with no other notes in between.

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Now let’s talk about function. What does a tie do? A tie tells you that the two notes are to be played as a single note for a duration that is equal to the sum of both notes. Said differently, a tie tells you to add the two notes’ value together, and hold for that many beats. In our example below we have a dotted-quarter note (which gets one-and-a-half beats) tied to an eighth note (which gets half a beat). We will play the first note (the dotted quarter), hold for one-and-a-half beats, and then continue to hold for another half-beat (the eighth note). This results in a note that lasts for a total of 2 beats.

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You can also tie multiple notes (it doesn’t have to be only two).

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Now let’s look at slurs. Slurs are also curved lines that are spread across multiple notes, which can include different pitches. In other words, a slur does not connect two or more notes of the same pitch, but rather includes a variety of pitches.

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In the example above, the long curved line stretching across the top of four measures of music is a slur. Notice that there are ties included in the first three measures of the example, indicating that it is completely possible to have ties and slurs present in the same section of music.

Now, what does a slur do? This is the easy explanation. A slur (also called a phrase marking) indicates a phrase of music that is to be played with legato articulation. “Legato” means to play something smoothly, making each note feel connected to the next (the opposite of staccato articulation). Although piano players don’t need to blow into their instrument to play it, think about how a flute player would play a phrase of music on one breath with no breaths in-between. That’s how we want slurred music to sound – smooth and connected.

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