Question for skimmers: how do we know when to play portamento/portato or a dry staccato? Is it based on a date or composer? Or is a half-staccato still common practice?

Sometime in college I played a timpani part and had a conversation like this:

Instructor: You're playing that too dry.

Me: It's staccato.

Instructor: Yes, but staccato means play the note for 1/2 its value. Staccato half notes should sound like quarter note.

After which I said something like "Yessir", thought "how have I missed this?", and accepted it. Unfortunately I don't remember the piece, but my guess is that it was early romantic era. (That semester my big timpani challenges were the jarring juxtaposition of a Beethoven Symphony and Candide, but it could have been another piece).

Most contemporary definitions just say "detached" or something similar:

Wikipedia: Staccato (Italian for "detached") is a form of musical articulation. In modern notation it signifies a note of shortened duration, separated from the note that may follow by silence.

This is representative of most easily accessible internet definitions.

But some older definitions assume the "half-staccato" as common knowledge, and even newer dictionaries retain vestiges of the definition propounded by my teacher. All works below accessible in the US via Google Books.

Facts on File Dictionary of Music (2004): Staccato performance in practice reduces the time value of a note by one-half or more;...

The Pronouncing and Defining Dictionary of Music (1896): Staccato Marks. Small dashes or dots placed under the notes, thus: [example] No difference is now made in playing the dotted staccato signs and the pointed ones. Formerly it was taught that the dots represented a half staccato. [Emphasis mine].

Haydn: an Introduction to his Keyboard Works (2005): It may be that Haydn intended the stroke for a short staccato and the dot for a somewhat longer portamento, but the marks cannot always be differentiated in his manuscripts or those of his copyists. In general, a staccato note should be about one-half the length of its usual value. [Bold emphasis mine]

The Etude: the Musical Journal (vol 40, 1922): Remembering that the dash (staccatoissimo) reduces the sound to approximately one quarter of its value, and the dot to about one-half, the slurred staccato reduces it to about three-fourths of its normal length. [in the context of a piece by Beethoven, bold emphasis mine].

I've also heard Bach staccatos played as half-duration values.

So, in the absence of a marking like secco or portato, how do we know when to play portamento/portato or a dry staccato? Is it based on a date or composer? Or is a half-staccato still common practice?

An Especially Difficult Bugger

  • 2
    I've never understood that way of writing. Wouldn't a crotchet and 3 beats rest come out sounding the same? – Tim Jun 13 '15 at 5:50
  • @Tim That's my question - is it equivalent to a crochet and 3 beats of rest of something even shorter? And yeah, it seems kind of pointless, but it occurs pretty regularly. – Josiah Jun 13 '15 at 14:01
  • 2
    Is it based on a date or composer? Yes, and composer's intent. Plus people get to throw whatever interpretation they like on top! – Matthew Read Jun 14 '15 at 16:21

It is pretty much context-dependent, although different people have different (often-strong) opinions on this. Apparently your director falls into the latter group. The style of the music will indicate more traditionally how it might be expected to be played, but ultimately it is still up to the performer's interpretation (in this case - your conductor). "By half or more" sounds sloppy to begin with, but I will often not fully halve a note even if it is staccato depending on tempo and other factors. This is as a wind player, not a percussionist, although I suppose the dynamic considerations aren't much different from a roll.

Actually I want to elaborate a little bit - I think the way I try to do it in many cases is to literally think of the note halved, and then play almost imperceptibly longer than that. My thinking was always that "if they wanted it halved, they'd have written half."

  • It was actually question of when to damp the ringing, so pretty similar to ending the breath. I've never been asked to roll a staccato (knock on wood). But, presumably in the same piece all the parts should handle the staccato the same way. You think that it's a division among interpreters more than era then? – Josiah Jun 12 '15 at 22:05
  • 1
    Unfortunately I can't even begin to comment on what the academic musical community views as traditional for each era. Especially on an instrument I don't know the first thing about playing ;p – Darren Ringer Jun 12 '15 at 22:11

If the note that has the dot is a long note, then I would interpret the dot as meaning that there would be a clear separation from the next note, if there were one. I.e. the opposite of legato.

(How short you need to go to get a nice separation or articulation depends on the acoustics of the space and other conditions inherent to the instrument and the player.)

If the note that has the dot is a short note, then I would interpret the dot as meaning, play the note as short as possible, so that it just sounds like a little blip, but still a nice-sounding little blip. So maybe the timpani teacher felt that your little blip was so short it had lost its beauty.

On a string instrument, it is possible to stop the bow dead in its tracks, in such a way as to stop all ringing, all resonance. This can be useful as part of a particular practice technique, I suppose -- at least that's what Suzuki teachers seem to think -- but I have yet to hear any music that that style is suited to.

I might not be answering exactly the questions you asked; but I hope my way of thinking about the matter is helpful.


I seem to remember a musician telling me staccato is used for readability too, for instance this:

enter image description here

is (arguably) more easily read than this: enter image description here

It puts visual emphasis on the counter rhythmicness of the notes.

Anyway, I'm definitely no expert.


First, don't confuse portamento and portato. Two different things. In fact, two very different things. Portamento is a slide, portato is a type of detatched.

Second, as a percussionist, don't get sidetracked by the special meanings string players have for various dot/slur notations.

A classic definition of staccato is 2/3 of the written length. Some would say 50%. But it's very much a matter of context and style.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.