What Is Staccato In Music? A Complete Guide

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The challenge for composers and performers is to convey their works in such a way that it reflects the emotion of the story or message that the music represents.

If you are successful, the music can change your audience’s mood, making them feel emotions, recall memories, or even imagine fantastical scenes.

Staccato rhythms can elicit feelings of excitement, agitation, delight, nervousness, or even passion.

All quality compositions contain a dominant character that expresses either joy or sadness, excitement, anger, seriousness, or even humor.

One of my favorite classical pieces, Mozart’s Piano concerto No. 21, contains a wonderful example of staccato strings producing a haunting mood throughout the 2nd movement.

Mozart – ‘Piano Concerto No. 21 ‘

First, What is Articulation?

Before we talk about Staccato, we first need to discuss articulation.

There are 7 primary articulation marks that every musician must learn:

  1. Legato (slurs)
  2. staccato
  3. staccatissimo
  4. accent
  5. tenuto
  6. fermata
  7. marcato

These marks make up the rules for interpreting and performing music in the same way that punctuation helps to make sense of language.

The composer gives specific instructions to you on how a note is played by annotating some or all of the notes.

Here you can see an example of the various marks:

Types of Articulation in Music

The music may consist of smooth, flowing melodies that are identified by curved connected lines or short, rapid, disconnected notes.

Some notes may be louder or more accented than others.

What is the Definition of Staccato?

The word “staccato” comes from the Italian word meaning “detached” or “disconnected”.

A note or group of notes is played staccato by separating them from each other and should be played very short and completely detached from the note before and after.

This is the polar opposite of playing legato, which is smooth and flowing.

The marking for staccato notes is a dot (.) either above or below the note head.

Notes with Staccato

If the stems of the notes face up, then the dot appears below the note, but it appears above the note when the stems face down.

The staccato mark is a clear instruction to play the note short and distinct from the notes before and after it.

You will easily recognize the sound of staccato notes as they are very short, jaunty, and precise.

These notes are played with a technique that allows the note to sound for a shorter period of time than the actual duration of the note.

An example of this can be found in Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 1 in E Major, “Spring:” 1:

Vivaldi – ‘Concerto No. 1 in E Major: Spring’

How to Notate Staccato

Staccato is notated with a dot either above or below the head of the note as shown in the image below.

Notes with Staccato

This is not to be confused with dotted notes which we will discuss next.

It is important to understand that notes of any length of rhythm can be played staccato.

Playing staccato is predicated on the concept of not allowing the note to run into the following note.

The duration of the note is an important consideration, together with the lack of sound between the sounding of the notes.

However, you may think that the composer may just as well have written a shorter note, a sixteenth note, instead of an eighth, for instance.

This is a valid suggestion, but it does not get to the heart of what staccato notes are for.

And that is the feeling of the way the notes are played rather than just the rhythm.

So, let’s consider the differences between staccato and dotted notes…

Staccato vs Dotted Notes

As a youngster, I sometimes confused the staccato marking with one for a dotted note.

This is easy to do when one is first learning to sightread music.

Dotted notes are distinguished from staccato by appearing after the note head and mean something altogether different.

Dotted notes vs Staccato notes

The dot after the note indicates that the note’s rhythm is extended by ½ the length of the note.

In other words, if you have a dot after an eighth note, then the duration of the note will be an eighth note plus a sixteenth note.

Dotted notes

The difference between the two is that staccato is an articulation that refers to how the note is played, whereas the dot after the note is an indication of how long the note is sustained.

Whereas when you are playing staccato, you are instructed to cut the notes short.

Examples of Staccato

Now let’s see what types of music you can expect to hear that are synonymous with staccato rhythms.

Classical music has numerous styles that lend themselves to staccato rhythms.

Viennese waltzes come immediately to mind, as do polkas and more modern rhythms such as tangos.

Johann Straus’ waltzes are some of my favorite examples of the use of staccato.

The following compilation includes the very distinctive styles of staccato employed by violins, woodwinds, and brass instruments:

John Strauss – ‘Waltzes’

I don’t think that the next example of staccato rhythm could be mistaken for its unique contribution to the atmosphere and emotion of the tango.

Listening to the rhythm of tango certainly brings the sultry, smoky Buenos Aires dance scene to mind.

‘Buenos Tango’

What is Staccatissimo?

You may have wondered what the differences are between staccato and staccatissimo.

Adding “issimo” to a term simply means “very”.

This is a term that is added to numerous marks and, in this case, refers to playing notes more heavily accented than staccato.

There is some difference of opinion on whether this mark was original to composers or was a later addition by an editor.

In any event, to notate Staccatissimo, instead of using a small dot below or above the note head, you instead use a wedge-shaped mark as shown below.

Staccatissimo

Staccatissimo is found on many scores, but your interpretation of it will depend on your personal opinion and training.

In Conclusion

I hope that you now have a greater appreciation for the use of staccato in a musical score.

The magic of music is the ability to lift the spirit or soothe the soul and knowledge of articulation and the use of staccato as a means to convey emotion will help to improve your performance.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then, he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.