Legato and Staccato
In addition to pressing the piano keys harder or softer to control volume, how long you hold down the keys is another way to create expressive music. Legato (long and connected) and staccato (short and detached) are terms used to describe these techniques. When playing a passage of music the performer may connect all the notes together so there is no gap between them (legato), or play each note short and distinctly (staccato). Of course there is always the option to play somewhere in between, with just a small silence between each note which is simply called non-legato.
The general term used to describe how to connect the notes in a passage of music is phrasing. It refers to the musical passage or phrase, which is a series of notes related in a coherent way. How you phrase a section of music through legato and staccato can change its entire character.
Each passage of music may have different combinations of legato, non-legato, and staccato. Most of the time music has written indications that guide the performer; however, there is great leeway for interpretation based on your own preferences. Many times music editors add in their own markings that may not be exactly what the composer desired. Some famous pianists disregard the markings completely and play the music as they feel is appropriate based on their historical perspective and artistic vision. Like most expressive markings in music they are meant as general guidelines to be tempered by the personality of the performer, and not an absolute commandment set in stone.
The indication in written music for legato playing is through use of the slur marking. A slur is a curved line that connects a series of noteheads together. A slur is a direction to connect all the notes in the phrase together, starting with the first note where the curve begins and ending on the last note where the curve ends. To add variety and expression to music, use legato phrases where appropriate and contrast with non-legato playing. Listen to the excerpt notated in Figure 9-4 for a demonstration of legato and non-legato. After listening a few times try playing it yourself. Be careful to follow the phrasing shown by the slur lines and contrast that with the non-legato notes that have no slur markings.
FIGURE 9-4: Legato and non-legato
Do not confuse the staccato dot with a dotted note. Likewise, do not mistake the legato slur marking for notes that are tied together. Tied and dotted notes lengthen the number of beats and modify the rhythm. Legato and staccato markings always retain the original rhythm and only affect the amount of space between adjacent notes.
To instruct the performer to play notes short and disconnected, a staccato mark (a small dot) is placed directly above or below the notehead. Staccato is much more noticeable than legato in normal playing, and is often used as a special effect. Staccato phrases are usually short in length and typically impart a light and playful quality to the music. Listen to the excerpt notated in Figure 9-5 and then try to replicate it with your own playing. Be sure to play staccato where marked and contrast it with the legato and non-legato phrasing.
FIGURE 9-5: “Staccato Waltz”