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I'm arranging a piece of music I wrote for string quartet, and I'm not sure what the most practical way of notating the following rhythm is. I'm self taught and rarely use written music, so I'm not sure how a classically trained musician would interpret these. This happens to be in 6/8, but there could be examples in any other time signature

two measures, one with eighth notes and rests, one with staccato quarter notes

Which is easier to read? The tiny dots seem easy to miss to me

Do they sound any different, assuming there's no other context for the musician?

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    For something this simple the first version is better, but beaming in groups of three eighths would make it even easier to read. – PiedPiper Jun 2 at 22:10
  • Thanks! I didn't consider beaming over the rest, that definitely looks clearer to me. – Innealtoir Jun 2 at 22:23
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    "the tiny dots seem easy to miss": they're not easy to miss if you're trained to look for them, as musicians are. – phoog Jun 3 at 2:31
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    @PiedPiper - how can they be beamed, when there's rests in between (1st) or notes that don't need beams (2nd)? – Tim Jun 3 at 5:44
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    Related, but not a dupe - 'Why are there many types of staccato?' – Tim Jun 3 at 7:24
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I endorse Aaron's and Richard's answers, regarding what staccato means conceptually.

This answer is mostly to provide some examples and details as to how staccato will typically come out in the case of a string quartet (or, strings in general).


As I already commented, I strongly disagree with the people saying a staccato note should “in theory” be the same as a normal note of half the length.

“A normal note of half the length” is a model for staccato, but especially in bowed strings it's actually quite far from the reality of how players will render it.

Only on some instruments (notably piano, which unfortunately dominates many a music teacher's mindset although it is in these regards completely different from most other instruments) is each note characterised almost exclusively by pitch, dynamic level and length. In general however, and very much practically relevant in string instruments, the note may be shaped in multiple parameters over its entire length. A first approximation is to look at only the time-varying intensity.

Piano is limited to a constant (roughly exponential) decay, and playing a note half as long means simply you stop it earlier:

Envelope models for two notes of different length on piano

It may then well be that a staccato crotchet 𝅘𝅥 𝅼 has exactly the same envelope as such a quaver 𝅘𝅥𝅮   on piano.

But even for such normal notes without any particular articulation, it's more complicated on string instruments! The bow doesn't bring the string (near-) immediately to full swing as a piano hammer does, but rather makes it “fade in” somewhat, depending on bow pressure and -speed. For long notes a slow attack is perfectly fine or even desired to get a smooth stringly sound, but in faster notes a player will adjust the pressure so the note is clear enough even in the short duration. Also, unlike piano the note doesn't decay by itself – but unless the passage is explicitly in legato, the player will fade it out some time before the actual end. Like,

Envelope models for two notes of different length on strings

The exact shape will of course vary between players and depending on the genre, but at any rate it should still be pretty clear when the note is really supposed to be finished.

Conversely, a staccato note will actually begin decaying almost immediately. It will typically also have a much quicker attack (achieved by “locking” and or “throwing” the bow hair into the string right before the note, so it's almost like a plucked or hammered tone), which alone will make it seem more detached from what happened before. This is actually not so much about loudness-curve, but tone character: any staccato note on strings will have more of a scratchy / clicky sound at the start, which string players would otherwise seek to avoid. Similar things can be said for wind instruments, where the start of the note will be articulated to different degrees with the tongue.

But what a staccato note won't have is a dedicated cutoff right in the middle of the note length.

How staccato might differ from modified note length.

Applied to your example, it would mean you should expect each version to come out roughly like this:

OP's example in envelopes

In fact, players might even end up playing the off-beat quavers slightly different when they're contrasted with staccato crotchets, than when all notes are quavers. But this really is hard to predict, how exactly it would come out.


It's worth mentioning that even on piano, the note end is not a completely sharp cutoff like you might get with a synthesizer with the release parameter set to zero: the dampers do stop the note quickly, but not instantaneously, and releasing the key slowly will actually also stop the note more gently. I bet for this reason, the difference I'm talking about between 𝅘𝅥 𝅼 and 𝅘𝅥𝅮𝅘𝅥𝅮   can even be found in most pianists' playing, though the effect won't be as strong as on strings.


Plotting source code: https://gist.github.com/leftaroundabout/8f92125b4148822f0e47774b5a1492e8

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    Given that OP is about string quartet music, this is as good as it gets. +1. Other answers (inc. mine) are less instrument specific. – Tim Jun 3 at 12:41
  • @Tim well, even for strings I'm only showing one possible way how staccato can be implemented – but yeah, from my experience this the gist of how classical string players will usually go about it. Really, the correct point is in Aaron's and Richard's answers though: that staccato does not define any particular note duration or envelope shape, but rather just that the note should be clearly detached. — Your point (and phoog's) that many sources do introduce staccato as simply a halve-shortened note is relevant as well to the OP, but it would become more useful if you referenced them. – leftaroundabout Jun 3 at 13:10
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    Wow, that's a pretty definitive answer – Innealtoir Jun 3 at 23:26
  • Btw not sure about other people, but many of your unicode symbols aren't displaying for me (Firefox on MacOS), so it can be hard to make sense of some of the points you're making. – Steve Bennett Jun 4 at 0:25
  • @SteveBennett I don't understand why this would still be an issue on some platforms... which of these display correctly for you? ♯ (MUSIC SHARP SIGN), 𝄪 (MUSICAL SYMBOL DOUBLE SHARP), † (DAGGER), Ⅳ (ROMAN NUMERAL FOUR), 𝅘𝅥 (MUSICAL SYMBOL QUARTER NOTE) – leftaroundabout Jun 4 at 7:59
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The core difference is that eighth notes/rests and quarter notes/rests (etc.) are durations; whereas, staccato marks are articulations. While it's true that staccato affects the duration of the note, there is an important interpretive meaning either way.

The version including notes and rests is giving a precise indication of how long each note and rest should last.

The staccato version is saying you want a sharp/detached sound to the marked notes, but the total time allotted is as marked. That is, the actual sound may not last that long, but the performer should still allow that amount of time.

The duration of a staccato is itself open to some interpretation as well. At a fast tempo, there's not much room for variation, and both notations in the OP may wind up sounding the same. But at a tempo where there's enough room between beats, a performer might choose a "sharper" or "duller" staccato depending on the nature of the music.

Another difference between the notations is that a rest is a "demand" for silence; a staccato mark "allows for" silence. A rest is a positive instruction to place silence; a staccato recognizes silence as a (possible) side effect. ("Possible", because instrument resonance could "bleed" into to otherwise silent time. In fact, were you to combine notations — staccato eighth note plus eighth rest — that would signal to the performer that they should explicitly stop the sound, cutting off any resonance.)

Summary: If the exact duration of the sound is important, use the notes/rests version; if a detached, "skipping" sound is intended, use the staccato version.


In terms of which is easier to read: neither will give any trouble to someone who reads music.

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  • Thanks for the detailed answer, I think the first notation will suit what I'm trying to do. – Innealtoir Jun 2 at 22:20
  • Good overview, Aaron. You might want to add that there's a "convention" held by many that a staccato note should be held for half its notated value. To me, mixing staccato-marked quarter notes with eighth notes doesn't really make sense. – Bennyboy1973 Jun 2 at 22:35
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    @phoog but that's in general just plain wrong. At least bowed string instruments will normally interpret a staccato note audibly different from a normal note of half the length. – leftaroundabout Jun 3 at 8:47
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    @phoog the statement about a staccato note being equivalent to a note+rest of half duration each. — I'm not saying staccato can't be taught this way; it is certainly one way to achieve the detachment effect, albeit not necessarily the best one. But what is plain wrong, even ignoring exact timing, is to assume that players would interpret a staccato note as note+rest when they see it in a written part. – leftaroundabout Jun 3 at 11:42
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    A lot of people have pointed out that staccato notes can vary depending on player and musical context. But the same goes for notes + rests. – Bennyboy1973 Jun 3 at 13:13
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I'll chime in as a violinist. Keep in mind that notation is partly about psychologically manipulating the musicians to produce the effect that you have in mind.

  1. The first example would be appropriate if you really, really wanted silence between the notes. As a musician I'd pick up on this desire and probably wind up interpretively shortening the eighth notes even further, basically putting staccato articulation on them as well. I'm reminded of a place where Brahms writes exactly this way, in the Scherzo of the Piano Quintet:
    . He writes what's essentially a dotted rhythm, and could have been communicated with dotted eighth notes and sixteenth notes, but instead he writes 8th note, 16th rest, 16th note, to emphasize the separation between the notes.
  2. The second example, yes, is much easier to read. If you don't care about that silence between the notes, it would be the preferable choice.
  3. Tempo matters. If this is a jig-like tempo, say 120 to the dotted quarter note, then the two notations might sound very similar. At slower tempos, say 180 to the eighth note, I'd play them very differently. At that speed, for the second notation, I would probably gracefully taper the quarter note as if there were simply a decrescendo on it, but for the first notation would probably leave a large gap between the notes, probably lifting my bow physically off the string. Either way, the context and mood created would "trick" me into making these notes either crisp and aggressively detached or lyrical and broadly shaped, or anything in between.
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    Love the comment about "manipulating" the performer. Very astute and well put. – Aaron Jun 3 at 20:04
  • I'll second that quote, and thanks for the Brahms example, a performance speaks a thousand words – Innealtoir Jun 3 at 23:17
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I only have a half answer, but I think there's an important thing to clarify: the literal definition of staccato.

It's a past-tense form of the Italian staccare, meaning "to detach." While it's true that some musicians (especially those in competitive ensembles like a marching band) have determined particular proportions inherent in a marking like this, that's an exceedingly narrow (and dare I say unmusical) view of this marking. There is an infinitely large spectrum of what staccato can mean, and I've even heard some interpretations (at very slow tempos) where the articulation isn't even applied to the note marked staccato, but rather to the note (or notes) on either end of it. In other words, I've heard notes marked staccato that actually last their full duration; it's the notes on either side that don't receive their full value so that they are detached from the actual staccato pitch.

All of this to say that your first notation allows for much less interpretation on the part of the performer, so it's up to you what you want: do you want it to sound more or less the same each time, or do you want to give your performers more room for interpretation? If the latter, I'd recommend the second notation.

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    Does the "detach" meaning also have the literal sense of detach from the instrument? Like lift the bow or hand off? – Michael Curtis Jun 3 at 15:24
  • @MichaelCurtis That's a great question, and one I've never considered. I don't even know how I'd go about finding that out. Who was the first person to use "staccato"? – Richard Jun 3 at 15:34
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    @MichaelCurtis No you do not use the term "detach" for lifting the bow. There is a bow stroke called "Detaché" and that is broad but separate bow strokes. Like playing a down bow stroke followed by an up bow stroke. Thus you can connect the notes with seperate strokes. So it is completely opposite to staccato. Thus detached notes is a different thing from detached bow strokes. So it can be confusing with the terms. Lifting off the bow when there are staccato dots is called "spiccato". – Lars Peter Schultz Jun 4 at 9:26
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In theory (that's where we are!) they should basically sound the same. Reason - a staccato dot means the note sounds for half its length, followed by not being played for the other half.

The first example is probably easier for beginners to read - they see exactly what to play - and what not to play.

The second would be absolutely fine for musos, used to that sort of thing.

I imagine anyone playing either would make any subtle changes in the timing that would be appropriate (or not) for the style - the rests are meant to be exact, whilst the staccato marks can be open to interpretation, so in the end, it's down to the writer. Do they want exact, or do they expect a good player to play it possibly more musically, given the situation. Contrary to another idea, staccato doesn't mean that note gets played any louder, or with more attack, although on some instruments and in some music, this may happen as a matter of course, or even because the player interprets it as such.

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    “In theory” – what theory? Sure “half of its length” is a way staccato can be explained to beginners, but it is most definitely not the way all musicians would approach playing staccato notes. Honestly, I don't think it's even a good approximation on any instruments except piano, and that's just because it's so limited in what players can actually do with note sound. On bowed strings, there's a continuum between staccato, spiccato and sautillé. On electric guitar, staccato may be implemented with palm mute. Etc. etc.. – leftaroundabout Jun 3 at 8:53

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