In the comment section to a question about notating tied notes, the discussion of whether it's necessary to make a distinction between ties and slurs came up.

The reasoning goes as follows: If one would place a slur underneath two consecutive notes with the same pitch, wouldn't the most reasonable thing to do be to just play/sing one single note (meaning that the slur effectively would be reduced down to a tie)? Or would this depend on the type of instrument being used (maybe for some instruments, it would make sense to produce a sort of pulsating sound) and/or the number of voices on the same staff?

Edit: Many seems to think that I'm asking what slurs and ties are. This is not the case. I'm simply asking whether it's really necessary to have two different symbols and if one simply couldn't make do with just one, which then always is unambiguously interpreted to either a tie or a slur depending on the context.

As an analogy, you could either use the words "bachelor" (tie) and "bachelorette" (slur), or you could just use the word "unmarried" and then amend it to a man ("bachelor") or a woman ("bachelorette").

  • Keep in mind that a tie can be used to indicate phrasing, so there's the possibility of ambiguity. Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 13:59
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    @carlWitthoft No, slurs are used to indicate phrasing. The only purpose of a tie is notational. Ties are used to represent a single played note which it is impossible to represent with a single note symbol (for example a duration of 5 quarter notes), or a single note that starts in one bar and ends in a later bar, or where writing a single note would be rhythmically confusing (for example in bar in 4/4 time starting containing a 16th note, a dotted half note, and a dotted 8th note, the dotted half note should be rewritten using ties to show how it relates to the beats in the bar).
    – user19146
    Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 15:00
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    @Speldosa In your link to the other question, note that in the music example the shape of the ties and the slur are slightly different even though they both "connect two G's". That difference is important, though in poor quality music engraving it can be hard to see. There are other notations to indicate "a sort of pulsating sound", by combining a slur with articulations like dots or dashes.
    – user19146
    Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 15:07
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    "The only purpose of a tie is notational" - that should essentially be the answer. Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 15:11
  • @Speldosa Agreed with alephzero here. A slur with two notes of the same pitch signals a string player to many several notes in one bow direction. When tenuto markings, this is called louré bowing, with staccato, it's called slurred staccato. For wind instruments, it indicates several notes to be played with breath attack - no tongue articulation. Slurs are also thicker than ties and reach to the center of the notehead. Ties are thin and flat and begin slightly away from the interior part of the notehead. Musicians distinguish them all the time. Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 15:26

6 Answers 6


Two tied notes on a percussive instrument (including piano) have a single attack. Two slurred notes are two strikes without dampening the first strike before placing the second between.

Two tied notes on a string instrument are a single note and thus are played on the same string. In contrast, two slurred notes may well occur on different strings when using appropriate fingering. The Ciaconne from the violin solo partita 2 of Bach has close to its end a passage with slurred note pairs from adjacent strings and very obviously you won't suddenly turn a two-string slur into a single-string tie just because two notes happen to coincide.

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    Just to make it clear - is the answer to the question "Yes"? And in your Bach example, one would need to make a distinction between slurs and ties?
    – anatolyg
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 12:59
  • When you talk about these slurred note pairs, do you mean that they have the same pitch but are played on different strings? Doesn't this require some extra explanation or is it self-explanatory? And if so, isn't the interpretation of the additional slur unambiguous, since it couldn't notate a tie (since it already have been established that different strings should be played, hence demanding some kind of attack for each note)? (I hope my follow-up question was at least semi-clear.)
    – Speldosa
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 21:17
  • It's been ages since I've played violin, but by recollection is that a slur indicates that the marked notes should be played with the same bow stroke. Legato by default, but possibly articulated if indicated with other markings in addition to the slur, or with previous markings and a "simile" notation which is still in effect.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 26, 2019 at 7:16

Ties change ONLY the RHYTHM value: notes which cannot be represented only by one symbol, must be tied. Ties can be only between two tones of the same pitch.

Slurs is an EXPRESSION: it indicates that a phrase should be played smoothly. It can connect two or more tones.

  • Not really correct here. A half-note tied to a quarter can easily be represented by a dotted-half, but there are many reasons to notate the music the former. Also, slurs indicate smooth things for some instruments and circumstances, but not all instruments and circumstances. Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 19:24
  • Yes, this is all true. But it still doesn't answer my question. For example, if I read a choir score and it told me to sing legato (which is the expression I interpret from slurs in choral music) for a certain phrase, and that phrase contained consecutive notes with the same pitch, I would just sing one single, tied note, hence the same as if the notes just had been notated as ties.
    – Speldosa
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 21:08
  • @Speldosa - a sung note often has one syllable, so it would be sung to that. The line going across a barline may well indicate a tie. Now I understand the question! Yes, there could be ambiguities!
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 7:23

Judging from the linked question, such confusion probably involves situation when a slur only involves 2 notes, and those 2 notes are equal. Thus question arises: whether such slur is equivalent to a tie. The answer is absolutely no. There would be ways for performer to tell their difference, even when composer doesn't explicitly notate as such. Using Beethoven's 31st piano sonata as example:

Excerpt from Beethoven's 31st sonata

Here the desired effect is grouping every two notes together, maining the legato of first note as much as possible but not as a tie (100% of note length). The effective playing would be similar to (though a bit exaggerated):

Effective playing

This is usually the case for 18th century keyboard music. For other instruments or vocal music, there would be other semantic meanings for slur as well, which has completely different meaning from tie. They look very similar visually, but it's the meaning that matters.

  • " There would be ways for performer to tell their difference, even when composer doesn't explicitly notate as such" - how do we tell the difference here? Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 18:15
  • @topomorto in this example, it would be simple to replace the tied notes with the desired value of a tie so it just being a tie doesn't make too much sense. Baroque composers and some classic composers wrote shorthand in notation like this and wanted you to read more in between the notation.
    – Dom
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 18:25

Ties are ALWAYS between notes at the same pitch. Either because there is no one note that will portray the length or because the long note is longer than the bar length for the piece.

Slurs are ALWAYS between notes of different pitch - two, three or more may feature. A slur could be construed as a mini-phrase, where all the notes included in the slur are played in one breath, or legato, or without a perceivable break.

Ties are always written head to head, whereas slurs can be written tail to head/ head to tail, as they include different notes, often a couple, but occasionally five or six.

The two terms are not interchangeable, and shouldn't easily get mixed up. A phrase mark, which may look similar, will ALWAYS involve notes of different pitch, so would appear similar to a slur.

  • So, if I would write a slur between two notes of the same pitch (despite what the rules say), how would you interpret it?
    – Speldosa
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 21:10
  • @Tim - this isn't quite right. If you have three C4s in a row, and you have a tie/slur symbol connecting the first note with the third, you would have created a slur even though the only note involved is C4.
    – Ben I.
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 4:16
  • @Speldosa - your question presupposes that there is some different notation that would indicate a slur. Your notation would just be interpreted as a tie, period.
    – Ben I.
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 4:17
  • @Choirbean - the OP asks about two consecutive notes, but you have a point.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 7:24
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    Beethoven seems to disagree with you on this one...
    – fdreger
    Commented May 5, 2020 at 14:58

One very important situation where you need to be completely clear whether it's a slur or a tie is when inputting to a computer notation program - particularly if you want playback. The two are logically quite different, and are entered using different commands. And they can have subtly different visual styles.

But that apart, I defy anyone to tell whether a handwritten line is a slur, tie or phrase mark other than by context. And context will be sufficient.


This largely depends on the context of what is being written. Performers can usually determine what is being intended by what isn't written as well. If a composer truly wants a sustained note while others above play moving notes, the simplest answer would be to write a longer duration note.

A written slur in most orchestral music, in a place that would be more easily written as a longer duration note, often means that other players have other notes being played to create harmonic motion. In these circumstances, each of the notes would be played with a distinct articulation since they are parts of a different chord, so would have both different tuning tendencies, and would also probably be intended to played with the same rhythm of the other players within that chord. If this was not the intent, and provided otherwise homogenous rhythmic motion, it would be much simpler and clearer just to write a longer note.

Ties on the other hand, are used when the rhythm would be difficult to notate otherwise, such as across barlines or on weak beats within a measure. In such a case, if musicians have the same tied rhythm, it would be safer to assume that it would not be a slur, but a tie for the sake of writing a difficult rhythm.

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    All of this is incorrect. I don't think you understand what ties or slurs are. You should revisit your knowledge of this subject. Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 19:26
  • Could you be a little more specific? I find it hard to believe anyone would argue that you can't have a slurred, re-articulated note that is of the same pitch class as the previous note.
    – mkingsbu
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 14:24

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