Percussion Clinic Adelaide
This document is the original work of Jim McCarthy. All references to other texts have been bibliographed correctly. Any use of this text or part thereof without the permission of the author is an infringement of copyright.


Copyright - Jim Mccarthy. 13th October 1995.


For the following discussion of Articulation, it will be valuable to have a well defined definition. As this paper deals with the way in which our interpretation of "Articulation" is changing, I have looked to a non-musical dictionary to avoid any habitual clinging to the old ethos. According to the Random House dictionary, to articulate is to "give clarity or distinction to." something articulate is "made clear, distinct and precise in relation to other parts."

It seems then that in music, an articulation marking is any symbol additional to the note, which gives the performer more precise information about the way in which it should be performed.

Throughout our musical history, articulation markings have concentrated only on the shape of notes, in terms of their length and degree of attack etc.; those aspects which can to a vast extent be clearly defined on a volume graph of the type used in this essay. This is perhaps partly because of the relative importance of this area of music, but more so because of the relative weakness of our traditional system of notation in this area.

PITCH and PLACEMENT IN TIME are aspects of musical notation other than NOTE-SHAPE that the performer has to deal with. It is these two aspects of note articulation however, that our traditional system of notation is designed specifically to communicate.

Just as note-shape (which we have come to think of as all of articulation) has become an increasingly complicated issue as music progresses into the twentieth century, so has traditional notation begun to become inadequate in the more subtle communications of note-pitch, and placement in time.

This essay deals with the trends of articulation markings throughout music, and how they come about; then proposes a system of articulation that can cope with the exacting demands of the modern composer. It also explores the new idea, that articulation markings be extended into the other aspects of notation, namely note-pitch and placement in time.


When comparing a modern score with that of an older work, one of the first things to grab the attention is the considerably more exact notation. The further back in time we travel, the more written music is a shorthand notation. A performer of music in an early age was expected to understand the stylistic inferences of a composition, and play the notes accordingly. Duration of the notes, attack, phrasing and even tempos were to a certain extent exactitudes of the music's genre. Today this seems like an impossibility. We must remember however that the performer of yesterday did not really have a large musical ethos to select from, so the task of selecting the appropriate manner in which to execute a written piece of music was relatively easy.

As music became more complicated, and the number of stylistic differences became greater, composers felt they had to give more information as to the nature of their works in order to easily extract the correct interpretation from the performer. Usually this information would begin life as a command in written text, like "Staccato". Later the words would often be simplified or given a symbol (as in the staccato's dot) so it could be supplied more easily, and with greater separation to individual notes.

Today's performers have to deal with an exceptionally large variety of music. As well as being required to perform music from many different periods of history and many different cultures, there is the new work of modern composers. The composer in the twentieth century has also generally been exposed to a vast pool of contrasting musics. This means that the music they write may include elements from virtually any music, or even imitate a specific music in an authentic fashion.

It could be a lengthy process indeed for a composer to explain in words the way they required a piece to be performed using just text and a few symbols, even if the musical language used was simple. Many modern compositions however, use a very complex language, and it would be impossible for a performer to gain the necessary musical understanding of the work, without the very articulation markings he needs.

Music in the twentieth century has tended to become more exactly notated. Composers have found ways to be more and more specific in their writing. Sadly though, there is not a universal understanding of the exact nature of the articulation markings which exist. This is because of the way these symbols have developed.

As an example of this, lets take a simple accent.
The problem is that an accent is not a simple thing. There are many different types of accent, and the symbol has been used for all of them. As it became no longer enough to give an accent to a note, as a differentiation between types of accent was required, further explanation was required.


THE ACCENT - There is two basic types of accent in common use today.
The standard or "straight" accent:
and the "capped" accent or "jazz hat":
The basic message an accent gives to the performer, is to make the corresponding note stand out from the others, by making it louder. Apart from how much louder to make the note there are some other problems in interpreting an accent. Whether to make the whole note louder, or just part of it, and if so, which part? It is generally accepted in the case of the straight accent, that for small note values in quicker tempos, the whole length of the note should be accentuated. For the longer notes in slower tempos, it is open to interpretation as to how much of the note value should actually be louder, and on the shape of the note's volume graph.

When the Jazz Hat is played in jazz music, the accentuation is always very "hard". That is that the degree of accentuation is fairly high, and is at the very beginning of the note. Unfortunately, as this kind of accentuation coupled with an extreme shortening of the actual note value (staccato) is so common in jazz, the "hat" has become a shorthand meaning to play the note staccato as well as "capped". In classical musics the cap generally means to play only a short accentuation - but has no other inference. Because of the cross-pollination of musical styles and of the musicians themselves, there is often problems involved with the correct interpretation of this accent.

STACCATO - In some cases it is still common practice to actually write staccato where it is required for many notes in a row. To shorten a single note, a "dot" is used.

The problem is always how much to shorten the note.
If the shortened note has a value larger than the shortest value commonly surrounding it, then it is accepted practise to shorten to almost the value of the shorter notes. Sometimes the note can be given a slight diminuendo rather than chopping it too short.

If the staccato note is of the shorter value, then the amount of extra shortening required, is dependent on the amount of tension and rhythmic energy you want to transmit. (the shorter, the more energy) In cases where there is a longer note value marked staccato amongst shorter note values also marked staccato, then the longer note should be shortened to the same duration as that of the shorter notes.

TENUTO - By definition means to "hold the note for its full value." Originally this "dash" - came about because of interpretation problems resultant from things like staccato markings. Strictly speaking a note should always be held for its full value whether it has a tenuto marking or not. In earlier music though, some of the notes may be shortened according to style. It is only since the number of available styles made errors in judgement possible, that tenuto has really been required.

Nowadays it is generally accepted in modern music, that a note is always given its full value unless otherwise specified. The meaning of the "Dash" has therefore changed a little. The dashed notes should be played as long as possible within their value without actually running into adjacent notes, and have as little shape on the volume graph as possible.

STRING MARCATO - This is a symbol particularly used by Beethoven, and mainly applicable to strings. The vertical dash.
This not a true marcato or a true staccato, but similar to a cross between the two. There should be almost no actual separation between the notes, but the impression of separation is given by placing the weight of the note late, then decaying towards the end.


It seems that as composers become more fussy about the articulations that they require, the more performers will have to agree on a reasonably large set of universally interpreted articulations in order to keep up. The following section is a number of articulations based on those that are already in existence, and provide a comprehensive range of note-shapes without leaving too much room for oxymoron within the system.

= A short accent, with a high degree of emphasis.
= a straight accent. Generally not played so "hard", but with more of a "weight."
= A long accent. The accentuation should be fairly even, and for the whole duration of the note value.
= Tenuto. A long note with as flat a volume graph as possible. Just enough break at the end of the note value to provide separation between notes.
= Pulse mark. As the string marcato. With a gentle weight towards the centre of the volume graph.
= Staccato. Very short notes. Should be played as short as possible regardless of the note value. (If the composer wants something longer than this, then he can write the exact note value.)
= Marcato. With separation. Marcato will usually also imply a slight short accent just after the beginning of the note value.
= The shortest possible note, with a sharp attack.
= A short note, but played evenly across its duration.

The following combinations are also possible, and provide the composer and performer with a wide range of distinctively different articulations. In addition, I would suggest that the marking of "Non Troppo" be given a symbol of some description, to be used in conjunction with any of these markings.


If we extrapolate the current trend of increasing complexity in music notation, it is easy to see a time where our notation system, even designed around communicating Note-Pitch and Placement in time, becomes unsatisfactory for the degree of subtlety with which composers wish to write. Musicians make tiny adjustments in pitch and time frame all the time, even though they may not be aware that they do so. It is only a matter of time before composers become very specific about which adjustments they want.

Time Articulation is a concept that most good drummers and percussionists will understand. In any piece of music with a strong time feel, all the notes are placed within an acceptable degree of perfect rhythmic accuracy. Playing certain notes slightly ahead of dead centre, or slightly behind dead centre, will strongly characterize the feel of the music. A good example of this is the standard placement of the anticipated beat one in jazz music. In the slow tempos of the cool jazz idiom, these notes tend to be placed slightly later than dead centre, or "on the back edge of the time." In the Faster tempos of the hot jazz idiom, the same notes, although written in exactly the same way, tend to be placed slightly in front of dead centre, or "on the leading edge of the time."

The most solid time feel is where all notes are played as close to the centre as possible, and in general this is where the basic pulse will rest. There are times however, when we can create tension by pushing some notes a little to the front edge, or solidify the feel of polyrhythms and hemiolas by playing the secondary rhythm on the back edge of the time.

Intonation Articulation is also something many musicians put into practise every day. Like time feel, there is an acceptable degree of accuracy involved with the exact pitch of a note. Because we have become so accustomed to equal temperament, we tend to think about notes as having exact frequencies. When playing in an ensemble of some kind however, we often alter the pitch of our note slightly from equal temperament, according to natural harmonic or melodic function in the music. A good example of this is when playing the leading tone in a dominant chord. A good player will decide whether his function is more important melodically, or harmonically. If melodic function is more important, then they will sharpen the leading tone somewhat to create more linear tension. If the harmonic function is more important they will lower the note to bring it into strict accord with the natural harmonic series, thereby creating a fatter sound within the ensemble.

Here are some suggestions as to what some suitable markings might be for these two aspects of articulation.

= Play on the front edge of the time.
= Play on the back edge of the time.
= Play slightly sharp of equal temperament.
= Play lightly flat of equal temperament.


BARTOK, Bela.Concerto for Orchestra. Pocket score. Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Limited. London. comp.1944.
Bartok, Bela.Concerto for Orchestra. BRT Philharmonic orchestra. cond. Alexander Rahbari.Naxos c.1990.
Beethoven, Ludwig.symphony No. 7. Pocket score. Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Limited. London. 1973.
Beethoven, Ludwig.Symphony No. 7. Slovak Philharmonic orchestra. Cond. Libor Pesek. GMS.
FELDSTIEN, Sandy.Alfred's Pocket Dictionary of Music. Alfred Publishing Co., Inc. Sherman Oaks, California. c. 1985.
HINDEMITH, Paul.A Composer's World. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, 1952.
STEIN, Jess.The Random House Dictionary of the English language. (Editor in Chief) Random House Inc. New York. 1976.
WARD, William, R.Examples for the study of Musical Style. Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers, U.S.A. c.1970.

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