p How to Read Classical Notation - Articulation


Articulation is how each note is played. Some notes are played quiet, some loud, some smoothly, some aggressively. These are all expressed in the sheet music in different ways.


A piece of music does not usually stay the same volume from start to finish, but rather varies. These variations are noted with dynamic markings. Whether you play loud or soft is indicated by the following Italian terms:


They are usually marked under the staff near the section that requires the dynamic change.

Dynamics on staff

There are also gradual volume changes. Music getting gradually louder is called "crescendo" and is marked with opening "hairpins" below the staff. Music becoming quieter is called a "decrescendo" and is marked with closing hairpins below the staff.

Crescendo and Decrescendo

Sometimes the volume change of the music only affects one note. In this case "accent" marks are used.

A "marcato" is used when a note that would not otherwise be the accented note is pronounced more prominently. So in a 4/4 time signature, the 1st beat is the most pronounced beat, but if you wanted a note on the 3rd beat to be the most pronounced you would use the marcato. Here is an example:

Notes on Staff

Time Changing Articulations

Some articulations affect the time value of a note.

A "staccato" mark is used if a composer wants the note to be played for half its length but does not want to include a rest symbol following the note. Here is a staccato phrase:


Which is the same as this:

Staccato Meaning

A "martelato" is the combination of a staccato and a marcato. It is a note that is played forcefully and abruptly. Here is an example:


...and is the same as this: Martelato Meaning

A "fermata" mark can be used to indicate a pause. The note is played and held for longer than its written value. The length is up to each player. These are often used at the end of a piece of music but can occur within a passage as well:


Other articulations affect the smoothness among notes.

When two or more notes are played smoothly one after the other, the technique is called "legato". Legato notes are played with no space between them. The symbol for legato is the "slur," which looks a lot like a tie (mentioned in the rhythm section earlier). The quick way to tell the difference between them is that a slur connects two different notes and a tie connects the same note. The example below is a legato phrase. Each note is played smoothly into the next note.


Pitch Changing Articulations

Some articulations concern pitch changes.

An "appoggiatura" is a smaller note is written slurred into a normal size note. The smaller note's time value is subtracted from the main note's value. The smaller note is usually half the length of the larger note. This appoggiatura:


Could also be written like this:

Appoggiatura Meaning

An "acciaccatura" is a small note with a slash through it. It is written slurred into a larger note and is played very quickly before the larger note. Here is an example:


which is more or less played like this:

Acciaccatura Meaning

The "trill" symbol is used when a composer wishes the player to play the note written and the note above it rapidly back and forth. The length of the rapid alteration is indicated by the length of the note written. How fast the notes are played is up to the player.

Here is a trill:


Which is more or less the same as this: Trill Meaning

Sometimes a trill can be played starting with the note above the written note, like this:

Trill Meaning

This was more common in Baroque era music. Today, the trill notation does not indicate whether to play the written note first or the note above the written one first, so an explanation may be necessary from the composer.

An "upper mordent" is performed when a note is played, then the note above it, then the original note again which is held for the remainder of the note value.

This is an upper mordent:

Upper Mordant

It is more or less the same as this: Upper Mordant Meaning

A "lower mordent" is the same as an upper mordent except the second note is one note lower than the original:

Lower Mordant

which is pretty much the same as this:

Lower Mordant Meaning

A "turn" is when a note above the written note is played, then the note again, then the note below it, then the note again, and all very quickly.

Here is an example:


which also could be written like this:

Turn Meaning

An "inverted turn" is when the note below is played first, then the note itself, then the note above and then the note itself:

Inverted Turn

which also could be written like this:

Inverted Turn Meaning

"Glissando" is performed by striking a note and sliding to another note, playing all the discreet notes between the original note and the last note. On a piano it is performed by dragging the finger across a set of white keys between two notes.

Here is what it looks like in notation:


With glissando every single note is heard in the slide up or down to the next note.

A "portamento" technique is also a slide from one note to another, but it is smooth so that all the continuous minute pitches are heard between the original note and the last note. Instruments like the piano cannot play portamento, though instruments like the violin and the trombone can. The portamento is the signature technique of the Steel Guitar.

Here is how it is written in sheet music:


Because steel guitar uses a lot of portamento technique, this symbol would appear a lot in steel guitar sheet music. More on the portamento in the SPECIAL MARKINGS section.

Measure Markings

There is a lot of repetition in music. In order to reduce time writing repeated phrases, system markings are used. These can tell the player to repeat a measure or move to another measure or play a phrase and then finish the song.

A repeat sign is two dots at a bar line. They tell the player to repeat the piece from the beginning or from a previous repeat line.

Here are two examples:

Repeat to the Beginning

Repeat to the previous Repeat Barline

Sometimes different end sections are to be played after the repeat is performed. These are indicated by a line and a number over the staff.

So this:

Different Endings

...means to play through to the repeat sign, then start from the beginning, then omit playing the measures under the number 1 line and play the measures under number 2.

"Da Capo" (D.C.) means to play from the beginning of the piece or section.

It looks like this:

Da Capo

"Da capo al fine" means to play from the beginning to the part marked "fine" and end the piece there:

Da Capo al Fine

"Da Capo al coda" means to play from the beginning, then upon the words "al coda" to play from the coda onward. The "coda" is a mark that looks like this:


and is used to mark a section (usually the tail section) to be played.

Da Capo al Coda

"Dal segno" means to play from the sign.

The "sign" looks like this:


Here is what it looks like written over the staff:

Dal Segno

"Dal segno al coda" means to play from the sign and then when "al coda" is reached to jump ahead to the coda.

Dal Segno al Coda

"Dal segno al fine" means to play from the sign to the measure marked with "fine" and end the piece there.

Dal Segno al Fine


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