Legato? Staccato? Dotted notes? These might seem like funny words to some of you. Or if you know a little bit about music these three terms might seem like an odd grouping. But I assure you that there is a reason why they are presented here together. In this article we’ll examine what these terms mean, explain how to use them in music, and also explain what dotted notes have to do with any of this. By the end you’ll have a clearer understanding of many musical symbols – and you’ll avoid a common mistake that many beginners make.
There are many terms in music that come from the Italian language, and “legato” is one of them. The word “legato” means that the music is to be played in a smooth and flowing manner, without any breaks between notes. Playing the piano in a legato style means that each individual note has some connectivity to the next note. In written music there are symbols that tell the musician the he/she is to play a particular musical passage in a legato manner. These symbols are called slurs, or phrase markings. Slurs (or phrase markings) appear in the music as arched lines that stretch over various notes. These markings can stretch over a short passage of music (a few notes) or a long passage of music (many notes). The slurs in the examples below tell the pianist to play each phrase in a legato manner.
EX: 1 – Slurs over short passages
EX: 2 – Slur over long passage
One last interesting note regarding phrase markings: woodwind and brass players (musicians who breathe into their instrument to make sound) generally play all of the notes within a phrase marking on one breath, being careful not to breathe again until the end of the phrase marking. Playing everything on one breath obviously helps attain a sound of smooth, connected, flowing notes.
If legato means “smooth and flowing” then staccato is just the opposite. “Staccato” is another Italian word that means “sharply detached or separated from the other notes.” The symbol to indicate that a note or chord is to be played with a staccato articulation is a dot above or below the note (or chord).
When a musician sees a staccato marking he/she plays the note with a very short, detached attack. This means that the note will not ring out but instead will have a very quick decay.
Ok, here is where there is some confusion. A dot above or below the note is an articulation. Articulations (like staccato) affect how the note is played (i.e., short and detached). A dot next to the note affects the duration of the note (i.e., how long the note is held).
A dot next to a note performs a very specific function. The dot adds half of the note’s original value back to the note. So a dotted whole-note gets 6 beats ([original value = 4] plus [half value = 2]), a dotted half-note gets 3 beats ([original value = 2] plus [half value = 1]), and a dotted quarter-note gets 1.5 beats ([original value = 1] plus [half value = .5]).