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With instruments such as violins or trombones, it is possible to shift from one tone to another fluidly. What is this practice called? When has it first appeared in [Western] music?

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Sliding between two notes, up or down, and including the notes 'in the cracks' at the same time, is called portamento. It's been around for as long as the particular instruments it's possible to play it on. As you say, trombones, unfretted stringed instruments. It's possible also on trumpets and clarinets, easier to play in the upper registers.Slide guitar works well, but it's impossible on acoustic pianos - although a lot of keyboards - synths - have a portamento setting.

Glissando is not an Italian word, unlike so many other musical terms! It's a bastardisation of the French 'glisse' - to slide. It tends to be kept for instruments on which slides can be performed - catching as many notes in between start and finish as possible - but none really 'in the cracks'. In fact, harps and pianos are most considered with reference to the term 'glissando' - on piano, it's more usual to gliss on the white keys - so it's not even a chromatic episode. Trombones are difficult to perform a proper glissandos (glissandi?) on, as once past the end of the slide motion, a new embouchure needs to be made.

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    @user45266 I rather suspect that portamento predates the invention of the violin or, Tim, of any instrument, since it is also possible with the human voice. (In fact, in many styles, teaching singing involves a good deal of restraining a natural tendency to slide around, and even passages that aren't perceived as sliding probably actually involve sliding so quickly that it isn't noticed.) – phoog Oct 6 at 19:32
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Glissando, "glide from one pitch to another", or portamento, "pitch sliding from one note to another".

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    As other answers have noted, "glissando" is slightly different from "portamento", although often mistakenly used as a synonym. – user45266 Oct 6 at 19:27
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When has it first appeared in [Western] music?

"Portamento [has been] considered an essential aspect of good singing for hundreds of years..."
-- J. Potter, 2006, "The rise and fall of portamento in singing", Music & Letters 87(4), p. 523

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Glissando is a metered slide from one note to another that takes the given duration of the first note to perform. On instruments like a piano it is usually approximated "discretely" by sweeping across the white or black keys. Portamento is an unmetered smooth jump "between" successive notes (in timing similar to grace notes) like what happens naturally when having two different slur-connected notes played by the same finger on the same string of a violin and separated by a position change. There is no way to approximate that on a keyboard instrument.

  • Last sentence: read my answer. Engage 'portamento', press one key, press another. – Tim Oct 6 at 15:42
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    Probably referring to acoustic keyboard instruments, @Tim. With digital instruments, just about anything's possible. – user45266 Oct 6 at 19:29
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    @user45266: I can actually imagine an acoustic keyboard instrument capable of portamento. Imagine an instrument with a single string and a slide operated by the keys (like a single-string slide guitar). I don't think such an instrument exists or has ever existed, though. – Jörg W Mittag Oct 7 at 10:26

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