“Articulation” refers to how we start our notes, in contrast to “Phrasing“, which is about where we take the notes once they are already started. From the gentlest, most imperceptible start (da niente) to the most dramatic sforzando, there is a world of possibilities available to us, a huge artistic palette. The sensitivity and variety of our note starts contributes greatly to the artistry of our playing.
In speech we have vowels and consonants. In music also. In speech, as in music, there are many different degrees of articulation from the hardest, clearest, most percussive starts of the letters like K, T, P (these are the ones that can spray spittle or rosin dust), to the smoothest totally unarticulated sounds of the vowels, passing through the more mildly articulated consonants of V, F, J etc. The ultimate legato (slur) for a string player is the equivalent to a singer’s sequence of notes on an unchanging vowel.
Some languages are more articulated than others. German is not only very clearly articulated but also has accents on the first syllable of most words (like Hungarian). The French language is quite the opposite: very smooth, feline and unaccentuated. Italian has a beautiful mix of clear articulations with legato and moreover, a clear accent on the penultimate syllable of most words. This is why the italian language is music: each sentence is a musical phrase, and even each word is a miniature musical phrase. The origin of musical phrasing and articulation is in speech -and song – so it’s not surprising that the music of each cultures reflects perfectly the same qualities as its spoken language!
Surprisingly, the way we start (articulate) a note is quite independent from its dynamic. A pianissimo note can start with a crisp, clear attack and vice versa, a forte note can start smoothly. To use the speech analogy again, we can whisper the word “piano” with a very percussive start or we can shout the word “no” with a very smooth unarticulated beginning.
There is an excellent, free computer program for audio recordings called Audacity. On any computer we can record ourself and then look at the “image” of the sound. If we zoom in on some of the note-starts, we can see perfectly how the abruptness of the start and the rapidity of the decay (fall-back) correspond to the degree of articulation.
LEFT HAND ARTICULATION
Normally, we prefer to have the left hand finger already prepared on the string before the bow starts playing the note (see Preparation Principle). This means that normally, articulation – the choice of how we start (enunciate) each new note – is done solely by the right hand and arm. The left hand does however have a role to play – two roles in fact.
1. LEFT HAND ARTICULATION IN A SLUR
In a slur, it is the left hand that determines the clarity of the articulation, according to the speed and force with which the fingers are placed onto (or lifted off) the strings. The faster the passage, the more we need to articulate clearly the left hand fingers, for which we may also use more their harder tips rather than the softer pads (see Finger-String Contact)
2. LEFT HAND PIZZICATO TO HELP WITH OPEN STRINGS
Often, it can be difficult for the bow to get the open strings cleanly vibrating from the very beginning of the bowstroke. They often scratch at the start. This is because the open string, stopped by the ridge (nut) at the top of the fingerboard is quite different (harder and more abrupt) to a note played (stopped) by a finger. To start the string vibrating before the bow starts (or simultaneously) we will often use a Left-hand Pizzicato.
ARTICULATION WITH THE BOW
We could consider “articulation” principally as an element of bowing technique, because the way we start the notes is largely determined by our use of the bow. We are however discussing this theme in the category of “Musicality and Interpretation” because the main difference between a fine player and a less fine player in this area of articulations is not a question of technique, but rather of interpretative choice. For a purely technical discussion of bow technique in note starts see Bow Changes and Bow Trajectory from the Air.
Often, our bowings (choice of bow directions) are determined by the articulations that we wish to obtain. While a slur gives the ultimate degree of minimum articulation (maximum smoothness), spiccato gives the ultimate degree of maximum articulation (separation). Whereas it is most often the composer who specifies the desired articulations, we players then have to organise our bowings in such a way that we will be in the right part of the bow to be able to achieve these articulations. For example, gentle starts are easier further away from the frog, spiccato needs to be in certain parts of the bow etc (see Choosing Bowings). Some composers don’t specify much in the way of articulations. This doesn’t usually mean that there should necessarily be little variety in articulation, but rather gives the player free rein to use their imagination. This situation occurs especially in Early Music as well as in Folk and Popular music of all periods.
Bach – especially his Suites for Solo Cello (but also in his Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin) – is the most challenging music intellectually for choice of articulations. This is because of the combination of an enormous number of notes to play (with very few long, held notes but many short faster notes often in quite repetitive rhythms) with an almost complete absence of valid bowing and articulation instructions. This means that a large part of our interpretation of Bach’s music is simply a question of choosing the bowings and articulations that give form, sense and meaning (as well as making it technically easier to play) to music that could otherwise sound quite minimalist. Part of the huge variety of completely different Bach interpretations out there is largely due to this enormous freedom given us by Bach’s lack of articulation instructions.
We can find some very good examples to illustrate this in Bach’s Partita in b minor for Solo Violin (here transcribed for the cello). In the second Double, there are 960 notes (if we don’t play the repeats) of which only 3 are not semiquavers. Only 30 of these notes (3%) are slurred (according to most editions). In the third Double there are 183 notes of which only 2 are not quaver triples (8th notes) and there are absolutely no slurs. Adding slurs in appropriate places (as well as using lots of Phrasing and Rhetoric) is one way to avoid these pieces sounding like minimalist sewing machines.
To clearly show the importance of “articulation” in the language of music, we can try playing any piece of music with no articulation variety: no slurs, no staccato, no spiccato. Alternatively, get Finale or Sibelius to play back some music with all the articulation signs removed.