♫ Long and thin, legato is like spaghetti. ♫
♫ Short, and chopped in tiny pieces, staccato is like macaroni. ♫
We were forced to recite this chant in AP Music Theory. It is my life’s mission to find the person who wrote it and kill them, but it’s a good way to remember the two most obviously disparate articulations if you were for some reason, uh, struggling.
I have bad news. There are many more
types of pasta articulations where those two came from. Let’s learn about them!
(The computer emoji (💻) indications a term mostly made up to describe and sell virtual instruments, as opposed to a real articulation you might see in written music.)
- A sound that is somewhat toneless and often used as a decorative accent, e.g. in movie trailers. In virtual instruments, the pitch of the sample often does not correspond with the note played on the keyboard.
- Alternate picking 💻
- (Guitars) A term used to describe libraries with both “up” and “down” strokes for each note, i.e. both directions of strumming. In the case of intelligent alternate picking, the library will switch between the two automatically as you play.
- Bartok pizzicato
- (Strings) A kind of pizzicato where the strings are plucked so hard they snap against the fingerboard.
- Body percussion 💻
- (Pianos, guitars, strings) A non-musical sound performed by hitting the body of the instrument.
- Bowed sustain 💻
- (Pianos, guitars, lutes, zithers) A basic long note played with a bow or EBow on an instrument that is normally strummed, hammered, or plucked.
- A growling note produced by fluttering the tongue into the instrument. Unfortunately, it’s usually only an afterthought except in libraries designed specifically for jazz.
- (Strings, harps, zithers) A series of ascending or descending notes which “glide” from an initial pitch to the target pitch. On string instruments, it’s called a chromatic glissando, while on harps, zithers, and keyboard instruments, where the change in pitch is not continuous, it’s called a discrete glissando. These distinctions are not used in virtual interfaces.
- (Strings, woodwinds) Equivalent to a run or scale, though these terms in libraries usually refer to glissandi that can be programmed to match your desired scale and/or tempo.
- (Guitars) Equivalent to slide. Types of glissandos include upward and downward (sliding anywhere between a few frets and an octave to arrive at the target note) or bow-wow, which involves sliding up and then back down and is more decorative than musical.
- (Brass, strings) A rip or fall is a short rising or falling glissando, respectively.
- (Strings, guitars, woodwinds, brass, vocals) A transition between notes that is smooth and connected. Vocalists can achieve this effect by waiting to take a breath until the end of a phrase. For strings, legato involves keeping the bow on the strings until the end of the phrase, even though it may change direction. For many types of virtual instruments, legato is essential in adding realism. However, recording legato transitions can be time-consuming and costly, which is why free instruments may emulate the effect using scripts or more likely omit it altogether.
- An accented sustain note.
- (Guitars, woodwinds) An ornament consisting of a single trill at the start of a note.
- (Strings) A note played by plucking the strings of an instrument that is usually played with a bow. Pizzicato is the inverse of the bowed sustain.
- (Strings, guitars, vocals) In traditional music, the portamento is a synonym for continuous glissando in certain contexts, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a pedant. In the virtual realm, however, it exclusively refers to a sliding transition between notes, usually triggered by overlapping them on the piano roll. Portamento is what happens when you give Legatite to your Legato Pokémon, and it becomes Mega Legato X.
- (Synths) Equivalent to glide, which can usually be adjusted by a knob on monophonic sounds.
- (Strings, brass, woodwinds) Sudden, accented notes that begin very loudly and then quickly drop off. This articulation also covers the territory of fortepiano and subito forte in the virtual space.
- Slap tongue
- (Single reeds) A hollow popping sound created by using the tongue to slap the reed against the mouthpiece. Idk, I’m not a tongue scientist.
- (Strings) Two or more notes played in succession without lifting or changing directions of the bow. Slurs will not be listed as separate articulation patch or preset, but are often included in robust solo libraries for added realism, and can usually be triggered via keyswitch, overlapping notes, and/or CC.
- (Guitars) Equivalent to a hammer-on or pull-off, which is performed by placing a finger on, or removing a finger from, a string that is still vibrating, respectively.
- (Strings) Short, dry notes produced by “bouncing” the bow off of the string. In practical DTM, they serve as staccatissimos, a shorter and more emphatic articulation to use if your instrument’s staccato patch isn’t dry enough.
- Short, detached notes. Some libraries may include staccatissimo samples, which are even shorter.
- Sustain 💻
- A basic long note consisting of an initial striking sound (the attack), a held-out sound (the sustain), and a lifting or stopping sound triggered when the note ends (the release). The sustain portion may be looped indefinitely. In professional libraries, long sustains may contain audible rebowing, as a real player eventually must change bow directions!
- (Strings) Equivalent to arco, which is basic playing with a bow. While arco symbols (for up and down bows) are used in sheet music, the term rarely appears in the virtual realm.
- (Guitars) Equivalent to picking. Again, your virtual guitar interface will probably just say “sustain.”
(Pianos, vibraphones, chimes) The piano used to elongate notes after they have been pressed is the “sustain pedal” (CC 64, sometimes also called “Hold Pedal” in your DAW). Though a term like “piano sustain” may refer to the use of a pedal in traditional music, this is not usually the case in virtual interfaces.
- Notes held out slightly longer than their written length. Depending on the context/interpretation, it may indicate a kind of accent in sheet music. This articulation shows up often in real music, though in the virtual realm, I’ve only ever seen it appear in brass libraries, where it means “slightly longer than staccato.” (So… maybe like penne instead of macaroni?)
- (Pianos) Equivalent to short.
- (Strings) A “trembling” sound produced on string instruments by moving the bow back and forth very quickly.
- (Guitars, lutes, zithers) …or by moving the pick back and forth to strum the string(s) repeatedly, as on the mandolin or guzheng laying one note repeatedly.
- (Guitars) …or through the use of a tremolo pedal, which modulates the volume of sustained notes to achieve a similar effect.
- (Strings, woodwinds) A sound produced by alternating between two notes rapidly. Instruments with this functionality usually have “half” and “whole” (“HT” and “WT”) trill patches, using minor and major second intervals, respectively. More robust libraries may also include trills on larger intervals, like thirds, fourths, tritones, and even fifths (do not attempt).
“Compounders” is a term I made up for articulations or playing styles that are not necessarily mutually exclusive with the ones listed above. For example, you could have muted sustains, legato harmonics, or flautando tremolos. When listed alone, they are usually done with sustains.
- (Brass, woodwinds) An succession of quick and/or accented notes produced by making a “d-g” or “t-k” sound into the instrument.
- (Strings) A form of sul tasto with very little pressure on the bow that is meant to resemble a flute sound. It sounds a lot like false harmonics.
- (Strings, guitars, pianos) Isolated overtones produced by lightly pressing down on the string. In guitars, the distinction is sometimes made between natural harmonics (played while lightly touching an open string) and artificial ones, which are chromatic.
- A dampened note performed by muffling or clamping down on the sound resonators.
- (Strings) The strings are dampened using a rubber clamp attached to the bridge. Equivalent to sordino.
- (Pianos) Traditionally, piano strings may be dampened using the soft pedal (also called the una corda pedal), which shifts the hammers to strike a different part of the felt. Unlike brass instruments or guitars, pianos are not described as “muted” in traditional music, nor are the softened notes called “piano mutes.” The “muted piano” is a term in the internet music sphere that usually means a piano sampled only with this pedal down and/or dampened by placing additional layers of felt (or other fabrics) on top of the strings.
- (Brass) The horn is muzzled using a plastic, metal, or rubber object. Popular brass mutes include Harmon, bucket, plunger, or cup mutes, which each offer a distinct sound character.
- (Guitars) The strings are dampened using the player’s palm, so a muted guitar note is sometimes called a palm mute.
- Power chord
- (Guitars) A two-note chord (perfect fifth or some variation thereof) commonly used for rhythm guitar parts in rock and heavy metal.
- (Strings) Equivalent to the double stop, though this string articulation is much harder to find in DTM.
- Sul ponticello
- (Strings) Lit. “on the bridge,” meaning the bow is played on or very close to the bridge, resulting in a harsh, scratchy sound.
- Sul tasto
- Lit. “on the fingerboard,” meaning the bow is played on the fingerboard, resulting in a softer, more muted sound.