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I'm trying to figure out what (Western musical) terms are most accurate to use in documentation I am writing for an electronic music file format. In these formats there is a parameter that specifies the portion of a note's specified duration (which more often than not directly connect one to the next) the note should play before the music engine automatically transitions the envelope to release phase. The best real world analog I can think of for this would be playing a piano legato, with part of the time taken up by gaps while fingers move to the next key.

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  • I found a wikipedia site about envelope ADSR, maybe check that. (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release).
    – Emil
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:20
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    Not musical terms, but maybe this is well described by the technical terms duty cycle and (equivalently) mark-space ratio?
    – gidds
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 12:14

4 Answers 4

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There is no such term in music language, because the parameter, as you describe it, is not how the musicians think about music.

Some sources say that e.g. staccato means playing the note for e.g. half of its duration, but this is really inaccurate. For example, a passage consisting of staccato eighth notes and quarter notes, the quarter notes rather not be played twice longer than the eighth notes. They would rather all be sounding for a similar short time.

Legato refers to how the note connects to the next one, and I see it used it music software. E.g. legato quantization typically means "extend the end of the note up to the start of the next one". Legato overlap means extending note beyond the start of the next one (typically expressed in absolute time units, not percentage). Legato note followed by a pause doesn't really make sense. However, I could see stretching the definition in your particular software to say "100% legato" means playing the note for its full notated duration.

The general term articulation doesn't seem appropriate, because articulation may also refer to accenting or playing techniques unrelated to the note lengths.

In MIDI, a very close term is are event/note length/duration. At the event start, the Attack phase begins, at the event end, the Release phase begins. In MIDI, the value is given in absolute time units but I could imagine it could be presented as a percentage of the time of the written note, e.g. "50% note length means it sounds for half of its notated duration". Still it feels a bit like a technical term.

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There is no standard term for this parameter in classical music theory. If I were you I would make one up, perhaps "sustain duration" or "sustain ratio," depending on whether it is specified in units of time or as a fraction of the nominal note duration. This term, however, has the problem of seeming to refer to the ADSR envelope while possibly leading some users into thinking that it does not include the attack and decay portions.

To get away from envelope terminology you might prefer to make something up from less technical terms, such as the "sounding portion" of the note. Again, you might use "sounding duration" or "sounding ratio" depending on how you specify it. If "sounding" is too old fashioned or fussy for your taste, the simpler "on" and "off" might work, or maybe "hold ratio" as in "hold the note for half (or 3/4, or whatever) its notated length."

If you have time for some research, you can see whether other theorists have adopted terms for this, as suggested by Aaron in a comment, and decide whether you wish to adopt the same terms. If you do, please post an answer.

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The terms you're looking for are

  • staccatissimo: the most detached (i.e., shortest sounding duration)
  • staccato: detached
  • portato: detached, but not as markedly so as staccato
  • tenuto: as much of the duration as possible, but short of legato
  • legato: smooth connection note to note

These terms are relative (to each other) and do not have mathematical definitions. Some music software makes the proportions user-settable.

There is also legatissimo, which is infrequently used, but equates to "as legato as possible" or "the most legato".

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    Are there terms for the two fractions of time (as opposed to the relative lengths of them)?
    – user94097
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 1:10
  • @user94097 You mean the sounding and non-sounding parts of a particular note articulation? No. It's possible that some theorist(s) published paper(s) in which they adopted terms for those designations, but they would be specific to the writer rather than being in general use.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 1:13
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Adding to Aaron's answer - staccato - generally the note is held for approximately 1/2 of its written value. So staccato crotchet will be held for a quaver, followed by a quaver silence.

Staccatissimo will last for about 1/4 of its written value.

Portato will mean no gaps between - oddly the word itself can mean 'half-staccato.

Tenuto is given its full value, in some circumstances a touch more.

Legato will have a smooth connection between notes, rather like words when we speak, 'all in one breath'.

Mezzo-staccato, meaning a note will sound for 3/4 of its written timing.

It seems you're looking for terms that differentiate between those above, as far as duration of sound/silence are concerned. The terms above do just that!

As far as technical terms go, ADSR may help - Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release, with Sustain being the key to how long a note will sound for, after being played, and release being the time taken for the note to become inaudible after it's been played. There are several Q&A here which are concerned with ADSR.

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  • The usual unexplained dv. How am I going to learn to produce better answers?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 9:42
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    I think both this answer and Aaron's miss the point of the question, which is not seeking terms such as "staccato" or "legato" but rather a name for the parameter that one varies to produce staccato or legato, analogous to tempo being the parameter that one varies to produce largo or prestissimo.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 14:14

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