Interpreting wind articulation markings

It’s easy to think of articulation markings as being black and white (and not just literally). But sometimes the instructions aren’t completely clear.

For example, I think most people would see this marking…

…and understand it to mean that the D gets some extra length, perhaps so much that there’s no silence between the D and the following C. And there’s an implication that the other notes shouldn’t be that way, so perhaps they should have a bit more space by comparison.

But how about this? (I ran into this marking in a piece I am working on this week, by an experienced composer.)

The slur seems to preclude any space between the notes, so how does the tenuto work? You can’t reduce the space if it’s already zero, right?

I think most experienced musicians would say that in this case the tenuto gets some other kind of stress, like a little extra volume, or a slight stretching of the beat, or maybe more intensity in the vibrato. But those are substantially different from the first interpretation. And if I do interpret the tenuto as some kind of stress, how is it different from, say, this:

To interpret the markings, you have to take them in context. Musical notation is an expressive language, not a set of precise instructions for note-playing robots.

And sometimes the markings are bad. There might simply be mistakes, or maybe the composer or editor isn’t entirely familiar with how wind players interpret articulations. How about this one?

Wind players tend to think in terms of slurred or not slurred, and map this directly to a technique. When the slurs are doubled up like this, it doesn’t quite compute—I’m already slurring, I can’t make it any more slurred.

So often the go-to explanation is that the larger slur is some kind of phrase marking, to show that those notes belong together, and the smaller one is an actual slur. Or, I guess, maybe another smaller phrase marking? And why do I need a phrase marking anyway—shouldn’t I already be playing phrases? And, if I decide to take out the smaller slur, then does the larger one still remain a “phrase marking,” or does it transform back into a slur?

Here are some things I try to keep in mind as I try to interpret articulation markings:

  • If the composer put it on the page, she or he wants to hear it. How can I make the marking audible? What is the composer’s likely intention?
  • Why did the composer pick that particular marking? If there is ambiguity, is it intentional, or at least knowing?
  • Do similar markings appear elsewhere in the piece, or even in the composer’s other works? Does that shed any light? For example, if the composer uses both tenuto marks under slurs and accents under slurs, the composer probably wants them to sound different from each other.
  • Is there a tradition surrounding this piece? Sometimes frequently-performed pieces begin to develop a sort of standard practice for how certain markings are interpreted. Sometimes these are reasonably reliable, such as if a recording was made with the composer’s input, but sometimes they are just popular guesses. If you have a better guess, you can use it, but it would be wise at least to know what the tradition suggests.

We are used to thinking of music itself as an expressive thing, that hopefully causes our audience to respond in some way. But the art of music notation is also expressive—the composer/editor/copyist is trying to get some kind of response from the musician. (Which in turn gets the response from the audience.)

If you have been reading articulations like a robot—or ignoring them—return to the score again and listen to what the composer is telling you.

One thought on “Interpreting wind articulation markings

  1. This was really good. Yes, we’re not robots. So much in music is up for interpretation, even it would be easier to just play as written. I really enjoyed your take on the subject. Thanks

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