In the few piano pieces I've learned, I've sometimes seen notation ambiguous to me whether or not to play the notes immediately preceding slurs as legato.

For instance, the treble clef in bars 3 and 4 from Burgmüller's La Pastorale:

Burgmüller's La Pastorale bars 1 to 4

Bar 3 is clearly understood. The slur for the treble clef encompasses the entire bar. It follows the end of the slur of bars 1 and 2. So, I interpret this as "lift the right hand at the end of bar 2, play the notes in bar 3 legato, and then lift the right hand at the end of bar 3, ready for bar 4".

However, bar 4 is less clear. There is a slur, but only covering the last three notes of the treble clef, and excluding the dotted crotchet D. To me, there seems to be two different ways this could be read: which is the most appropriate?

1. Play the D legato into the slur, so all notes in bar 4's treble clef are played legato, i.e. play the notes as in bar 3.

My argument: I've learned a general rule-of-thumb in piano to play notes legato, unless they are marked deliberately not. (I realise this is not an absolute and may depend on the composer or period when a piece was written.)

2. Play the D and then lift off, before playing the three notes in the slur legato.

My argument: why would the D not be included in the slur if it is intended to be played legato into the other notes? Wouldn't the notes in bar 4 just all be notated under a slur as in bar 3 to indicate they are all legato?

4 Answers 4


Imagine a slur goes over a word. Here the word could have three syllables, or just one. In bar three, that word (whatever it is) would have all four notes sung . bar four, there's one word (of one syllable) on the D, and another - maybe three syllable word - sung to the other three dots. If you said the words, there would be a very slight gap between them, but the last three notes would be sung with no gap.

Had the writer wanted all four legato, he'd have marked it as such.


The notation is quite clear. Bars 3 and 4 could have been notated the same way. They aren't. In bar 4, no slur into the D, no slur out of it. It's a 'stand-alone' note. Don't over-do it though, it's a subtle bit of phrasing. If this was a vocal piece, I'd interpret it as giving that note's word full length but meticulous diction


Well, here is your problem:

My argument: I've learned a general rule-of-thumb in piano to play notes legato, unless they are marked deliberately not.

Uh, no? Who gave you that rule-of-thumb? Notes without additional marks are played separately, one ending before the next begins, but without a marked pause (like portato would suggest, let alone staccato). Basically you do nothing with the end of a note: you don't connect it to the next note, you don't emphasize it by shortening it. Legato, in contrast, means a connected sound. If you were to play legato by default, why would there even be legato marks and instructions?

So clearly bar 4 is not to be played all-legato.

  • Please could you clarify the apprent contradiction in your words "one ending before the next begins ... you don't emphasize it by shortening it". Perhaps you mean that you do shorten the note but you don't emphasize it?
    – Rosie F
    Apr 15, 2018 at 5:26
  • @RosieF I think that should be read add "you don't emphasise it by shortening it as you would do if a staccato was requested "
    – Arsak
    Apr 15, 2018 at 10:16

Slurs indicate phrasing and often contribute to the rhythmic quality of the piece. In a piece that lacks notation, you will have to make your own choices, but the piece posted above is clearly notated. Slur what is under a slur. Lift off the D in m. 4 before playing the slurred notes, but hold it for the full amount.

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