Does Staccato Mean Short?

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The question today is, does staccato mean short? You know the dots over or under notes? When you see them, you think you’re supposed to play those notes short, right? For example, in Clementi Sonatina Opus 36, Number One, the famous sonatina. I know not all additions have staccatos, but they should because it sounds really good playing crisp, short staccatos. So does staccato mean short? Staccato does not mean short! So why are staccatos played short then? Well, they aren’t always played short.

Staccato actually means detached.

Staccato is the opposite of a slur. Slurs are played smoothly and connected. Staccato tells you to detach the notes. Now, in a fast tempo like the Clementi Sonatina Opus 36, Number One, they’re going to be short. But have you ever had a slow piece with a staccatos? What does that mean? Well, oftentimes composers will write notes with rests between them if they want really short staccatos in a slow tempo. So if you had 4/4 time and half notes with staccatos, instead of writing half notes with staccatos, they might write a quarter note with a staccato followed by a quarter rest, then another staccato quarter note followed by a quarter rest, and so on. So you have quarter note, quarter rest, quarter note, quarter rest, which already gives you some separation. And if they’re staccato, you would play them even shorter, ostensibly.

In some instances you detach notes without playing them short.

I’m going to give you an example where there are half notes in a fast tempo, something in 2/2 time, the famous Pathetique Sonata of Beethoven. After the opening slow section, it goes to an Allegro. It’s really fast, and you have staccato quarter notes followed by staccato half notes. Should it be played with all the notes equally short? Well, half notes shouldn’t really be short. Should they be detached? Absolutely! The way I interpret this is to play those half notes like quarter notes followed by quarter rests. This way they have some length, but there’s space between them. You play the quarter notes short, because at a fast tempo,it’s very difficult to detach the quarter notes without playing them short. But you can detach the half notes without playing them short. That is what Beethoven intended, I believe. But this is only one aspect and one place.

Generally, slow movement staccatos are longer notes that are detached, and fast movement staccatos are played short and crisp.

When you have staccatos in a slow movement, they are not generally to be played short. It’s out of character. The staccatos simply mean to detach the notes. Now, there are always exceptions. Context is everything! I showed you an exception right here where Beethoven writes staccatos on half notes. So take this with a grain of salt. Look at what makes sense in the score. Why would a composer write staccatos on half notes? It doesn’t make much sense for them to be as short as the staccato quarter notes, does it?

I’m interested in hearing from all of you about this! I’m happy to answer any questions you have about staccatos in any context! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.


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2 thoughts on “Does Staccato Mean Short?”


 
 

    1. Dots to the right of notes have nothing to do with staccato. They alter the rhythm of the notes. Dots after notes add the value of the next faster note:

      a dotted whole note = a whole note plus a half note = 3 half notes
      a dotted half note = a half note plus a quarter note = 3 quarter notes
      a dotted quarter note = a quarter note plus an eighth note = 3 eighth notes, etc.

      Dots under or over notes are directions of phrasing like tenuto, legato, portamento and such. These are directions of how notes are connected or detached and don’t change the rhythm.

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