I have seen staccato in a lot of pieces. And I have heard a ton of different ways of playing staccato.

For example here is staccato that is notated but not played as a clear cut staccato at the very beginning phrase of this movement:

I myself articulate all the staccatos I see including this phrase ending staccato as a clear cut staccato, I don't play any of them tenuto. Not even half the value tenuto. I keep it a clear cut staccato.

Here, the half note staccatos are held for full value, maybe even longer but the quarter note staccatos are the clear cut staccato that I usually hear and that I always play when there is no pedal marking.

And here is the pedaled staccato. I still articulate this and I can't really tell it apart with my ears alone from a very fast non-legato.

I also find that at super fast speeds, there is a blur between staccato and legato. Like the staccato is so fast that it can sound as though the phrase is not staccato at all. This can happen when the tempo is really fast but more often it is an Allegro piece and there is a passage of staccato 32nd notes and I don't hear a staccato at all.

Why does a single articulation give so many different interpretations from "sounds legato" to "this is definitely staccato" to "Wait, why is it notated staccato if it isn't played that way"?

  • Musescore plays back staccato notes as "half the value tenuto". So, what is a "clear cut stacatto"?
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 1:06
  • What I mean by that is like a very detached note where the key is pressed for such a short time that no sustain is audible but you still wait the length of the note value before playing the next note. So for example, with the phrase ending staccato in Mozart, instead of playing the last note of the first phrase in the second movement of K 545 as long as an eighth note, I play it as a very detached note but I still wait, in that case 2 beats before I play the next note in the right hand.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 1:17
  • Fast tempos and short note values and the half the value tenuto and clear cut stacatto sound the same. Slow tempos and long note values and there is a noticeable difference.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 1:27
  • 1
    Wouldn't the "very detached note where the key is pressed for such a short time that no sustain is audible" be staccatissimo?
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 7:05
  • I don't know. I have always been taught that was staccato when I had a piano teacher.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 15:48

3 Answers 3


Usually, there is three types of staccato's, namely a dot (staccato), a wedge (staccatissimo), and a dot under a slur (portato). The general idea is that staccatissimo is the shortest, staccato moderately short, portato still less short. Their exact meaning is up to context and interpretation, like is every musical decision.

The problem complicates as some people strive for historical accuracy (even we are not sure what that means), and some do not. In Mozart and Beethoven's time (following the examples you cited) the sustain pedal for the piano is not always available, and when being available, not commonly used. The articulation sign originated in string bowing. A slur is for one bow only, and a staccato means a separated bowing and accent of each note.

When the concept was borrowed to the piano literature, the distinction is more conceptual than descriptive. There is a tendency that one slur indicate one hand-movement, and a loud-to-soft change to emphasize that being a unity, but that is not obligatory (as nothing should be in music). Indeed, some passages in Chopin nocturnes have staccato or portato, but the pedal seems be necessary. In such case, it is probably implied that each note has to be played with weight, but not separate in sound (due to presence of pedal). As another example, Debussy sometimes use staccato with Laissez vibrer (dangling ties), and that probably indicates a note light in volume, but is let to ring with pedal held.

In the Mozart Sonata video you posted, the note with staccato in the end of slur should be played shortly and lightly. And in the Pathetique Sonata video the pianist also, to me, uses too much pedal. Listen to Schiff's playing, and notice that, in the first-group section in exposition (namely the just beginning of Allegro you are asking), he uses little or no pedal, and the staccato half note is truly a short and detached note. I believe Beethoven notated that as a half note (rather than a quarter and a quarter rest) purely due to simplicity of notation, but of course we cannot be sure. On one point, though, I agree with you that pedaled staccato is really not staccato -- as the piano damper is already released -- but may well be notated in other ways.

I recommend Charles Rosen, Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion for more information on historical articulation. As a baseline, staccato indicates a separation of touch, and a more equal emphasis on each notes. Apart from that, I advise paying more attention to the context and character of the piece, rather than adhering scrupulously to the definition.

  • So that's why I hear the half notes for full value in the Pathetique Sonata video, the pianist might very well be articulating the notes staccato but at the same time he presses down the damper pedal to sustain the staccato.
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 17:02

Because musical notation is a language.

Words in English have many meanings. You determine the meaning based on context, your experience, facial expression, etcetera. Words even change meaning over time. Literally.

Musical notation is the same. Each symbol has a range of meaning, and that has changed over time. You need to understand the context in which it was written to know the composers intention. A marcato in big band music means something different to the same symbol in a Sousa march. Fortissimo can mean earth-shatteringly loud, or it can just mean the composer wanted a broader sound.

The "default" definition of staccato is usually based on halving the value of the note. But it's not mathematically precise. Sometimes it means the composer wanted the notes to be very spiky and short. Other times, it's just asking for a bit of separation; the note should still have some body.

Adding to this is the fact that music is interpreted. Notation does not contain all the information you need to exactly reproduce a piece. You need to add things. Different people add different things. And you can't really say that one interpretation is "wrong". It can be "more enjoyable", or "closer to the composer's intention", but not "wrong". Probably. Unlike music, I can be wrong.

We could remove all this ambiguity, of course. We could precisely notate the length of every note, and specify every dynamic level in dB. But I think that would be a net negative. The notation would be much harder to read, and impossible to execute precisely.

In short, like language, musical symbols have different meanings in different contexts, and different people interpret those meanings differently. And I don't think I'd want it any other way.

  • But how does that explain the half note staccatos in the Pathetique sonata being half notes held for full value? Is Beethoven expecting me to use the pedal to sustain the half note staccatos despite no pedal mark?
    – Caters
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 4:33
  • 1
    @Caters Honestly, I don't know enough about that specific piece to make any educated statement. I'm mostly trying to say that musical symbols don't have mathematically precise meanings, and composers can (and do) use the same symbol to mean different things. There's inbuilt ambiguity, if you will. Perhaps the performer just chose to interpret those staccatos differently. Unfortunately we can't just call up Beethoven and ask him what he meant.
    – endorph
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 4:48
  • Regarding "We could precisely notate the length of every note": in music sequencers, there is no such thing as articulation. You have to specify how many time units long each note is.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Feb 12, 2019 at 10:50

I was always taught (in both the UK and the USA) that "staccato" doesn't actually mean short, it means separate. Obviously in faster music, separated notes will likely sound a lot shorter than separated notes played at a slower speed. To me, this solves your quandary of trying to limit a suggested style of attack and decay to one technical method. If composers are not clear they expect short notes or simply separated notes, then performers get to choose based on the mood, feelings or meaning (or whatever non-verbal communication they are using the language of emotions to convey) they are hoping the audience will pick up. Hope that helps!

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