Articulation in music refers to the playing method used to transition between notes. These transitions can range from smooth and connected (legato) to very detached and separated (staccatissimo). Just like when we are speaking and emphasise certain words, different combinations of articulation in music helps to communicate a story with a mood or feeling behind it. Imagine, if you were telling someone “I love you.” You wouldn’t pronounce those words short and sharply, almost spitting them out. You would (hopefully) say them with some tenderness.
Some commonly used symbols together with their descriptions and abbreviations are given in the table below. This is not an exhaustive list, but will certainly get you started at the beginner playing level.
As woodwind players we can use a technique called tonguing to disrupt the stream of air we blow into the flute. When we use this technique whilst simultaneously moving our fingers to play the next note, this gives the effect of distinct separation between the note sounds. Making the sound of the letter ‘t’ is the easiest way to do this. By using this syllable lightly whilst we are breathing out, the tip of the tongue flicks behind the teeth off the roof of the mouth and briefly cuts off the air flow. Your flute embouchure should remain formed and the jaw in position resting against the lip plate following the tonguing of each successive note. (Opening and closing the mouth between notes isn’t necessary and will seriously limit the speed at which you will be able to play).
For short notes (such as the staccato or staccatissimo) briefly stopping the flow of air together with the tonguing of the note may be necessary to give the desired effect. Allowing the note to ring despite being short is important so try to avoid strangling the note by allowing the tongue too much movement. To tongue or separate notes in very quick succession, double tonguing or even triple tonguing is a more advanced technique that uses more syllables (such as ka, da and ga).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, playing notes legato means there is essentially no movement of the tongue to separate the notes. Air is continuously blown into the flute and the fingers do the work in moving from one note to the next. The notes smoothly ‘melt’ from one to the next without separation. Curved lines (called slurs) group the notes that require the legato articulation together. Beware! Because ‘sound’ is continuously being created, care must be taken that finger changes are clean and coordinated. If moving more than one finger for the next note, any slow changes can result in ‘blips’ or halfway notes appearing making the music sound messy.
Playing notes tenuto lies somewhat in the middle of the spectrum between tonguing and slurring notes. Similarly to legato notes, air is blown continuously into the flute so that notes aren’t cut off and are sustained for their full length. However whenever a finger change is required, we now add the tonguing technique. The notes are long and sustained, yet the tonguing springboards you to the next note.
And what’s with the portato or mezzo-staccato notes? How can you play both detached yet connected at the same time, I hear you say?! This articulation requires the lightest touch of the tongue, creating a smooth pulse and only the most subtle of breaks between notes. Using a softer syllable such as a ‘la’ can be helpful.
Playing accented notes means we are required to strike the note more forcefully to make it stand out from the notes surrounding it. Accented notes can be played tenuto (played long and hard) or as staccato (short and hard). It can be easy to over-tongue and almost spit the note out in our efforts to do this, resulting in the note cracking into its harmonics or even jumping an octave. To avoid this, rather than using a very deliberate and loud ‘T,’ use more abdominal support to force a strong puff of air out (more of a HA) that is also tongued with your usual pressure.
Symbols either above or below the music staff instruct us which articulation patterns to use on each note. During the course of your playing you may need to suddenly switch between a range of articulation techniques, such as in the example below…
And… if you plan on progressing through any flute examinations your articulation will certainly be tested through playing your flute scales (yikes!). You can be asked to play any of your set scales with a number of different articulations (see some examples below). Notice that the tonguing and slurring techniques may be combined in a number of ways.
Need to hear some examples of these to really ‘get it?’ I demonstrate some examples of articulation in music in this quick video tutorial...