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Accents and articulation

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Tempo markings, descriptive terms, and dynamics are all essential when conveying how a piece should be played. Even more precise markings are also used on individual notes, and we'll discover these in this guide.

Musical symbols

Although there are plenty of Italian (and German and French) words used in music, it is by its nature an "international" language that does not require in-depth knowledge of any other language. In order to accomplish this, music uses plenty of symbols to indicate, quickly, ideas that might take several words to describe.

There are very many musical symbols in use, but relatively few are encountered frequently. This guide looks at the frequently-encountered symbols that are essential to learn, with the exception of ornaments, which are a special topic covered in Ornaments.

In all cases, you need to be able to recognise the symbol and give the correct name (and spelling!), to correctly notate it in music yourself, and to describe the meaning of the symbol.


These symbols require careful notation in order to avoid confusing players.

Most of these symbols can occur above or below notes or the stave. Some can be attached to a specific note, others are general and apply to all the notes in the stave where the symbol appears.

Usually, for symbols that are attached to notes, the symbol should appear on the side of the note opposite to the note's tail: so, if the note's tail is pointing up, then the symbol appears below the note; if the tail is pointing down, the symbol appears above the note). Some symbols appear upside-down when they are written below a note-head, and these are covered individually below.

There can be quite a lot of flexibility and variation in the way that symbols can be notated. When you play from printed music and encouter any of the markings discussed in this guide, look carefully at the precise position of symbols. How close are they to the note? Are they above or below the note? Above or below the stave?


An accent written above (or below) a note causes that note to be played in a firmer, louder way, with a different attack to the note. The precise degree of attack or firmness depends on the type of accent used.

There are three ways in which the performer can be instructed to accent a note, in increasing order of strength: the tenuto symbol, the standard accent, and the marcato symbol. These are shown below:

tenutotenutoSlight pressureThere are several possible meanings to this sign. The one expected in the exam is "slight pressure", and to "generally separate the notes". Confusingly, it can also indicate that the note be held for its full value or slightly longer, but it always means that there should be a distinct attack to the note, with a "slight pressure" that is less forceful than an accent.
accentaccentAccent the noteThe note should be played louder, with a stronger attack, than the surrounding notes.
marcatomarcatoHeavy accentA stronger, more forceful version of the standard accent. Turns upside-down (like a "V") when used below a notehead.


A staccato mark indicates that a note should be played much shorter than the full duration written, with the remaining time taken up with silence. The example below shows how staccato markings might be interpreted:

Interpreting staccato markingsInterpreting staccato markings

There are two types of staccato mark: staccato and staccatissimo, and in addition, the staccato mark can appear underneath a slur, a semi-staccato, as described below:

staccatostaccatoShorten the noteThe note (or notes) should be played with a shorter time value (around half, or less, of the expected length). This does not mean the notes should be played faster - the remainder of the time value is silent. Apart from being shorter, the note should not be played any differently (i.e., not louder unless also accented!)
staccatissimostaccatissimoMake the note very shortLike a staccato, except even shorter. This symbol should only be used on notes of crotchet length or shorter.
semi-staccatosemi-staccatoSlightly separatedThe notes should be slightly separated or detached, but not as much as a full staccato. Applies only to groups of 2 or more notes.


Make sure you learn to spell the unfamiliar word "staccato" - double C and no double T's - you may lose marks in an exam if you spell this word incorrectly!

Ties and slurs

A curved line joining notes can mean several things.

  • If there are two notes, and they are the same pitch, then this line is called a tie, and the two notes should be joined together as if they were one note (the time values should therefore be added together).
  • If there are several notes of different pitch, then this line is called a slur. This indicates that the two notes should be played in one breath or one bow-stroke, or connected as if in one breath (for example on the piano). The notes must be performed smoothly (legato).
  • A line over a larger group of notes is a phrase-mark (also called a ligature), and does not necessarily mean that that the notes have to be slurred, but that they should be played as one phrase. The precise interpretation is usually left to the player or conductor.

Slurs and strings

A phrase-mark or slur has a special meaning to string players, indicating that the notes should be played together in one bow-stroke. In general, in string music, slurs / ligatures always refer to bowing and not to phrasing.

Several examples of ties, slurs, and phrases are shown here:

Tie, slur, and phrase markingsTie, slur, and phrase markings


Pause markings indicate that a note or a rest should be held for longer than the usual duration, with the length left to the player or conductor's musical discretion. In other words, the musician should "pause" on the note or rest.

pausepausePause on the note or restSometimes you might see the indication lunga, meaning "long" together with a pause (pausa lunga). This simply means that the pause should be held for a long time.
Turns upside down when used below the stave. Should appear above (or below) the stave, not within the stave, over (or under) the relevant note or rest.


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