Good playing and articulation

Articulation is somewhat similar to speech punctuation. It determines the manner of playing and in many respects imparts expressiveness to it. Using articulation, the performer can vary his playing from the most seamless and continuous (legatissimo) to the most abrupt and sharp (staccatissimo).

If we divide articulation into three main types, they can be defined as legato (continuous), non-legato (distinct), and staccato (short and abrupt). Each of them includes a variety of intermediate gradations. Since in this article we should consider how important articulation is and how it affects performance in general, I will not describe all the details but just make a comparison of articulation to speech and tell more about some erroneous stereotypes.

If you happen to talk to a person who utters every word so distinctly and sharply as if giving commands, you will hardly like it. Moreover, if he speaks in a manner that gives you no clue of where one sentence ends and the next one begins, you will probably lose any meaning of what he is saying. And no matter what he is talking about, asking or answering or relating something… I do not think you can call him an orator. And you will not listen to him endlessly.

It is all the same in music.

However, in pop and rock styles, people are divided for some reason into several groups, with their own understanding of what is more difficult and respectable to play, and what is primitive and does not worth any respect at all.

Such claims as, let’s say, legato is more difficult to play than non-legato so you should play only in a certain way, are absolute nonsense.

Whatever music piece you play you cannot do it with non-legato only from the beginning to the end no matter how short this work is. No need to explain to any university-educated musician that playing with only one type of articulation is unacceptable. He understands very clearly that he should be capable of playing any musical phrase with any type of articulation. No matter what he uses — legatissimo or staccatissimo, everything should sound equally good. After all, the level of playing is evaluated by the worst element. This means that everything must be played through perfectly.

But there are strange insights among many (pop, rock, and jazz) guitarists. Some consider it an exquisite mastery when they pick every sound with their right hand (and call it staccato). In most cases what you hear is far from staccato, but in their mind, since all sounds are produced with the right-hand strokes it is definitively staccato.

Others, while playing with the one hand only call it legato and think they have reached perfection. You can also hardly explain to them that in most cases what they do is not legato.

Remember the imaginary person I was talking about earlier and think for yourself would you call it a performance, if one plays a certain set of sounds using only legato or staccato? It is easy to guess that you cannot apply a ‘good playing’ definition to such a strumming.

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