Classical Articulation and Phrasing

Articulation encompasses the degree of separation between notes and the degree of emphasis the notes are given. It is denoted by dots, slurs, strokes, rest and even rhythmic values. In eighteenth century, music, the articulation lies in the heart of the performance in the performers repertoire. General practice for most eighteenth century music was that in the absence of a specific staccato or slurs signs meant notes are slightly separate from each other and played somewhat shorted than notated. This rule is prescribed by CPE Bach, Quantz and Leopold Mozart.

Unless otherwise marked, separation is the normal practice, at least until about 1800. Legato on the other hand is less common and required to be indicated in the score. Sometimes the word itself was written – usually marked by the slurs binding together two, three, four or more notes together. It is less common to slur across bar-lines.


If separation is the norm, legato will be specifically marked. Dots under slurs indicates portato which literally means dragged, in which successive notes are taken under one bow (or the keyboard equivalent of a bow stroke) except with a slight separation between each note.

Dots Under Slurs

The marcato wedge was a sign to vary textures between the hands in the piano music and occasionally they are mated with other markings to form a composite sign.

In principle, the first note of a slur is taken more strongly than the notes that follows. This is in keeping with the notion of the eighteenth-century phrasing ‘good’ notes. The downbeat of the first and the third bar are ‘good’ and require stronger accent while the downbeat of the second and fourth bars are less emphasized. The succession of the ‘good’ and ‘better’ notes and bars, together with other aspects of articulations and dynamics, give shapes to a movement, rendering the larger architecture the works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert. It would be a false assumption to assume that composers demand uniformity of articulation. Mozart in both his scores and performing parts rarely writes articulations for horns.

Carl Czerny like Beethoven described Mozart pianism as ‘choppy’. In the eighteenth century, bowing was non-legato, but this does not mean that Mozart and Haydn played in a manner that was inappropriate to the music at all. Mozart was the one who repeatedly stressed ‘cantabile’ – in a singing quality for all instrumental performances. The continuity of the nineteenth century music, gave rise to facilitating the long lines. Singing melodies are played off against busy motivic and rhythmic gesture.


In the Baroque period, terrace dynamic was used but in the nineteenth century, a range of dynamic playing from pianissimo to fortissimo were by far the most frequently used. There were specific signs that often represented sudden dynamic change. Special attention must be given to the symbol fp.

At the turn of the mid-century the sign was often combined with a stroke to represent an accent. Later it was used with a familiar sense from Beethoven’s Sonatas. Dynamics in the eighteenth-century music depend largely on the genre and the type of source. Mozart’s intention with dynamics remained largely unknown. During performances, Mozart used a full range of available dynamic and nuances even though they were not marked in the scores (nor in the modern editions). This remained true in the genres of 1780s and 90s performances, including the vocal, orchestral and ensemble music. Not until the nineteenth century, did composers start to include an abundance of dynamic marks in their scores.

Besides indicating accents or relative level of loud and soft, dynamics also serve to articulate the musical drama of a movement or a piece. Sometimes, dynamics create a localized effect and another time, it extends across a broader time span.  Performers should consider the dynamic interpretation as well as the phrasing and articulations and be grateful with the absence of dynamic where a performer has a personalized interpretation.

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