Music Theory: Staccato Marks, Touches and Tones

By Orville A. Lindquist

There are three kinds of staccatos:

  1. Staccato
  2. Portamento
  3. Staccatissimo

To be mathematically exact a plain staccato is supposed to sound one-half of the length of the note’s value; the portamento is held for three-fourths, and staccatissimo for only one-fourth.

The player has to decide for himself a great deal as to which of the three kinds he should use, as composers are often very careless in marking their staccatos. About the only things that we can be sure of is that when we see a staccatissimo mark we know that the composer wants the note very short, and when we see a portamento mark we know that he doesn’t want it very short. Some composers never use the staccatissmo mark at all, and rarely the portamento, so that when we see a plain staccato used we must use our own judgment in the matter as it is liable to mean any one of the three kinds.

Three Kinds of Staccato

From the standpoint of execution we also have three kinds of staccatos:

  1. Finger staccato
  2. Write staccato
  3. Arm staccato

Finger staccato, as its name would imply, calls for action from the knuckle joint, although a little wrist action can also be used with it. Two kinds of finger action can be used:

  1. A straight up and down action
  2. Pulling in of the fingers action, a sort of wiping the keys, so to speak

This latter action is often spoken of as being best for a real quick staccato. I think, however, that this is a case of the eye deceiving the ear, for the action of the fingers for a real staccatissimo must be so very quick that it doesn’t seem that the finger could possibly have time to take a toboggan slide on the key while making so short a tone.

In wrist staccato the action is from the wrist, while at the same time a slight finger action is used. Wrist staccato is used a great deal – perhaps as much as the finger staccato by many players, and no doubt many times when a finger staccato would be more practical. Especially is this true in rapid staccato work. There is also great danger that the pupil will make too excessive motions in executing the wrist staccato – an all too common fault with phrasing in general. The way some hands fly up n the air makes me think of what Mark Twain said of the ant. Mark thought the ant was given a great deal more credit for its wisdom that it really deserved.

“What other animal,” he says, “when it found a telephone pole in its path, would crawl up to the top, over and down the other side to get by?”

The greater the artist, the fewer of these aerial flights do we see in his playing.

In the arm staccato the action is at the elbow. There can be little action at the wrist; the latter being kept in a tense or relaxed condition according to the convenience of the player.

However, in playing staccato the manner of doing it is only of secondary importance. The average pupil hears too much about how this or that touch should be made. There are too many kinds of touches and tones. The pupil reads of so many that he is bewildered. If the eyes were closed and the ears opened, these one thousand and one different touches would dwindle down to about a half dozen more or less – certainly not more.

If we go to the mill to have some wood cut into certain lengths we don’t care what kind of a saw is used – handsaw, bucksaw or crosscut saw; but we do care that the dimensions are exact.

The Part the Dampers Play

Almost any staccato can be played with any of the three above mentioned touches. Of course, if the staccato was rapid, we naturally would want to employ the shorter levers – finger staccato; if a great deal of strength was needed the arm staccato would be best; but the all important thing in playing staccato is for the pupil to think a tone short and then listen to see if he is getting it so. In other words, depend upon the ear rather than the eye. One thing in playing staccato is very important, however, and that is that the fingers should be kept very firm at the tips.

Putty fingers make clean staccato work a hopeless task. Another very necessary condition is that the piano must have good “shut-off” dampers, for without these, although all other conditions be perfect, a good staccato is impossible. Even after all these conditions have been met, a perfect staccato, excepting in the middle register, is still often impossible because there are no dampers for the upper treble, and in the low bass the strings have such a strong resonance that the dampers are not usually equal to the task of making a clean shut-off of tone. When the piano key is released the damper in a fine instrument touches the string and stops the tone immediately.

It is surprising how little importance is given this matter of shut-off dampers even by piano houses of very good reputation. In their advertisements they are not over modest about telling of the beautiful tone, the excellent action, exquisite case or any other good point that that piano may have, but never a word about dampers. It is possible that they don’t realize what it means to the player to have a piano with good dampers? You can get neither a good legato nor staccato without them. Verily I say unto you, that though a piano have all the other good qualities of the finest instrument in the world, and hath not good shut-off dampers, it becometh as so much sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

When to Play Staccato

“When shall I play staccato staccato?” was once asked me by a much perplexed pupil. It is a wonder that this question isn’t more often asked, considering the carelessness of composers and editors in marking staccatos. For instance, one edition will have a plain staccato mark at the end of a certain phrase; another will mark it with a staccatissimo, while a third will have no mark after it at all. This wouldn’t be so bad if the same marks were adhered to throughout the composition, but as likely as not in the very next measure the same type of phrase will be met with and not be marked at all. When the last note of a phase falls on an accent it is made staccato, and the stronger the accent is the sharper should the staccato be. If the pupil will but follow this rule, he will not be bothered by inconsistent staccato markings at the ends of phrases.

Sometimes a phrase that should be cut off short is spoiled by too prolonged pedaling. If the pedal is used on a phrase that is to be cut off staccato, it should be released, not on the staccatoed note, but just before it.

The way phrasing in general is neglected would lead one to believe that it is a very difficult feat to perform. The opposite is true, however, for when a phrase is properly made the finger is left free to prepare itself over the next key.

Many players have about the same idea of phrasing and fingering that some people have of the Ten Commandments. They think of them as they would of the four walls of a jail – a something that hedges them in and takes away all their freedom. Of course the contrary is true. They will not have less freedom, but a great deal more, if they will obey the marks of phrasing and fingering. For this reason I think it is a mistake to have a pupil learn the notes first and then get the phrasing afterwards.

Marking notes staccato that are also marked to be sustained by the pedal is a very common fault in many editions and often very troublesome to pupils. Many varieties of this fault might be shown if space would permit.

staccato 1

It is hard enough for teachers to get their pupils to pedal these fundamental basics clearly without being hampered by the staccato marks. Of course, if these tones are caught by the pedal they will sound the same whether played staccato or not; but the surest way to get a pupil to miss them with the pedal would be to mark them staccato. To be sure, these tones are played with a staccato touch, but if we mark all such places staccato where would we end? Even MacDowells’ To a Water Lily is played with just such a staccato.

Another case where staccato markings are superfluous is in the extreme treble of the keyboard; although, as a rule, not great harm is done by such markings because the strings at this end of the piano have no dampers and are open, so that tones are the same whether the key is quickly released or held down.

It is interesting to see the pains that are sometimes taken with the fingering up at this end of the keyboard, in order that good legato by key connection might be obtained. Of course, whether keys are connected or not at this end of the piano would have no effect upon the legato.

An especially amusing case of this kind is found in a certain edition of Sgambati’s Nocturne in B Minor. The only measure in the entire composition that is fingered is one way up in the treble beyond the range of the dampers. The fingering is purposely made very awkward so that a perfect key connection might be obtained in order to get a good legato.

There are some excellent musicians who contend that tones struck staccato on open strings sound different from those that are played legato. In a sense, this is true, because in staccato work there is apt to be more force applied to the key than when playing legato. However, if the same tones were played and given the same force as when played staccato, the effect would be identical in both cases.

If, in the example given below, the notes marked staccato were played legato and with the same degree of force as when played staccato, I defy anybody to tell in which of the two ways the notes were played. It is important, however, that the listener turn his back to the player, for here we have an interesting illusion. If the player took these staccato notes with a quick upward thrust of the wrist, you couldn’t convince the looker that they were not cut off short. A clear case of the eye deceiving the ear.

stacato 2

It is a poor plan for the teacher to keep his eyes constantly on the pupil’s hands or on the printed page of the piece that he is playing. He should frequently turn his back on the pupil and listen. If the teacher who hasn’t been in the habit of doing this will but try it, he will quickly realize the truth of the old adage, “All things are not always as they seem.”

Sometimes we have to play staccato in order to obtain a better legato. For instance, when two or more voices are to be played legato, all repeated notes are made staccato. This, however, is only true in rapid tempos. In slower tempos the repeated notes are let up on the last half or quarter of the notes’ value. In Example III the repeated E flats in the alto and soprano voices are all played staccato.

staccato 3

All repeated notes in rapid tempo are played staccato. Staccato marking over such passages are usually unnecessary, unless it is done with the idea of enlightening the pupil as to the spirit of the passage. But this is rarely necessary. The danger here is that when the pupil sees the staccato marks he is apt to over staccato the passage, thereby losing his freedom or repose, a thing so necessary for him to retain in rapid playing. The following example from Beethoven will be found marked staccato in most editions.

staccato 4

All melodies at the lower end of the keyboards, except those in slow tempo, should be played staccato, or at least semi-staccato, to insure clearness. Such melodies played legato would cause more or less of a muddle owing to the string vibrations of the bass strings.

In an article on staccato work very little can be said about eh use of the pedal, since when the pedal is depressed it is impossible to make a staccato tone. Care should therefore be taken, when playing a piece containing much staccato work, to see that too much pedal isn’t being used.

Staccatos put life into a composition while pedaling has the opposite effect – not always, but usually. Take Example V, for instance: It is the natural thing for the pupil to want to pedal this second measure, in fact, to look at it one might be inclined to think that the proper thing to do, since the harmony is perfectly clear. If this measure were in a piece of the Nocturne type it would be better pedaled; but as this particular composition needs to be played with lots of spirit it would, in this case, be better not to pedal it. Study the mood of a passage before deciding how it should be pedaled.

staccato 5

In the example below (Example 6) it would seem that to mark the treble notes staccato and at the same time expect to catch the bass tone with the pedal was also a mistake. This is not so, however. The effect is made by hanging on to the bass note with the finger and depressing the pedal after the staccato has been made.

staccato 6

Mention has already been made in this article of the staccato touch being used in MacDowell’s To a Water Lily. The opening chords in this composition, although whole notes, are left immediately as if they were quarter or even eighth notes. The idea is of course to get away from one chord quickly in order to get the fingers prepared ready to play the next chord, the pedal being used to connect them legato. The use of the staccato touch for preparation in this manner is exceedingly common. Everybody is familiar with it, but it is surprising how many real good players needlessly keep their fingers “glued” to the keys. This is a fault that should not be overlooked in a pupil because, next to stiffness, it is the chief cause of lack of freedom at the keyboard and the player who is not free in his playing can never hope to reach a very great height.

The use of this preparation staccato in practice is excellent, especially is it so for skips or rapid chord work. The heavy chord work in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor furnishes us with a good example fro practice of this kind. Practice in this manner:

  • Count four on each chord, leaving the chord immediately so that on count three the fingers are already prepared over the next chords.

After this becomes fairly easy to do, try preparing the chords on count two. A little practice of this kind will soon convince the player. It not only develops a quick movement but also makes one think, and as a man thinketh so playeth he.

Most of our piano technics are written to be played legato. Pupils will find, however, that they will be greatly benefitted if a liberal dose of finger staccato is applied to them. The practice of finger staccato will be found a great help in the development of clearness, strength and velocity. In practicing for velocity it is important that only a pure finger staccato is used and not a combination of wrist and finger staccato.

Some teachers would eliminate the legato touch entirely, claiming that, owing to the pressure touch used, it is a hindrance rather than a help in gaining speed. There is no question that too much pressure playing has a tendency to make the fingers stick in rapid technic; but why eliminate all legato practice because the pressure legato is bad? Legato touches vary from the strongest fortissimo played from arm weight to the faintest pianissimo with no weight, and scarcely any action of the fingers.

Stop, Play, Listen

I believe that every teacher will agree that, in practicing a passage slowly, the same muscular actions should be used as are used when playing the passage at a fast tempo. There might be more action used in the slow temp bit it would be of the same type as that used in the fast tempo.

As I understand the action of the fingers in legato – not legatissimo playing, it is in brief, this: One finger or key ascends, exactly at the same instant that the other descends, just as the opposite ends of the teeter-totter would do; or like the working of a two cylinder engine.

I can’t see how it would be possible to play at a very great rate of speed with any but a legato finger action. This question could easily be solved to the satisfaction of all if we could but get a slow motion picture of a trill as played by any of our great artists. Perhaps I am wrong, but I am of the opinion that the camera would show that a legato finger action was being used. If so, that would be the touch that should receive most attention in slow practice.