Staccato in music is defined as a way of playing notes in a short, abrupt manner that keeps notes separated from each other (as opposed to legato, which means to play notes in a smooth, connected manner). Just a quick glance through the internet, however, provides ample proof that there are several different kinds of staccato, and several different theories on how to play staccato. So…how should you play staccato? To tap or not to tap? That is the question. For our purposes here, we’ll defer to other articles for how to play staccato on other instruments. We’ll deal here with how to play staccato on piano. That’s why we’re using the term “tap”, as this term applies well to piano technique.
WHAT IS STACCATO? IT ALL DEPENDS…
There is universal agreement that staccato generally means “short and separated”. But just how short and separated is a matter that is not fully standardized. So, on piano, should staccato be tapped…or held out for a certain amount of time, then released? Should it be a quick, hard hammer…or a gentle tap or light touch? There are lots of different opinions. A lot depends on what period of music we’re playing (baroque, classical, modern), and, especially, on who your teacher is (and how s/he was taught!). Generally, a staccato “dot” in the classical period means a light tap that sometimes is held a tiny bit, where your finger kind of rolls off the key as you lift your wrist. In more recent music, the same marking generally means a more abrupt tap that is very quick. There is also “finger” staccato (where your wrist and forearm remain still and only your finger taps), “wrist” staccato (where your wrist is being used as a hinge while your arm remains still), and “arm” staccato (where your wrist remains fairly rigid and your entire forearm moves while your elbow acts as a hinge, often used when playing fast, loud octaves).
The following clips show these three staccato techniques:
My teacher taught me to play staccato with a quick, tapping motion, using my wrist as a hinge. She said if I learned this well, I would be able to learn other variations well. She explained that on pieces with a fast tempo (say a Bach invention played vivace or presto, which is to say, very fast) there wouldn’t be time to hold down staccato notes even if we thought we were supposed to. So, she concluded, the quick, tapping motion would work effectively for most situations. And many teachers would contend that the wrist should be involved even when playing “finger” and “arm” staccato. For a good breakdown of some of the different kinds of staccato techniques and markings, click here, here, and here.
DOES STACCATO CHANGE THE TEMPO?
A point of universal agreement is that staccato does not change tempo. Often my students play a passage faster because it is staccato, but this is a mistake. The tempo of the passage should remain the same, whether you play staccato or not. Staccato does not alter the duration of the rhythm “filled” by the note. So…even if we tap a note quickly, the rest of what would have been the duration of a normally played note still must be counted in the rhythm (it’s just that the full balance of the duration of the note is treated as a “rest”). So, even if you are not actually pressing a key, you still must count the full rhythmic value of the note as if you were pressing it. So, when you play a series of staccato notes, you are not playing the passage any faster than you would normally…but you are simply playing each note with a shorter duration and counting the silent area as “rests” (so it’s better not to think that you are playing the notes any faster, really, but rather that you are pressing each key for a shorter amount of time, then lifting up as you count out the full rhythmic value). Staccato may mean the motion of your finger is faster on a given note…but it does not change the tempo of the passage.
HOW LONG IS STACCATO?
There is a view that staccato means to play the note for half its duration. This would mean that a quarter note should be played as an eighth note, while an eighth note should be played as a sixteenth note, and so on. Some theorists contend that certain kinds of staccato should be measured with this kind of rhythmic detail, claiming that some staccato should be played ¼ the note’s value, other kinds ½ the note’s value, and even other kinds ¾ the note’s value. But this kind of approach is not common. And I don’t believe it’s very practical, especially if the piece is supposed to be played at a fast tempo, or especially if the performer is a beginner or intermediate.
There is relative agreement, however, that staccato notes that are slurred (that is, they have staccato dots but are also slurred with legato markings) should be played as very gentle, lingering staccato…as opposed to a quick, abrupt staccato. This kind of staccato , known as portato, usually is played by pressing the key, then lifting the wrist gently and letting the finger roll off the key…so that the duration of the note is cut short, but the note still is played with longer duration than with a quick, abrupt technique.
TO TAP OR NOT TO TAP?
In general, my recommendation for beginners up through intermediate musicians is to keep it simple. Unless you are really into the fine detail of advanced playing, I believe the best way to play staccato is with your “wrist” as a hinge (keeping your forearm fairly still), lightly tapping each key. If the notes also have a slur mark, then I would recommend holding each key down just a bit and lifting off gently…though I’d recommend you use the same “wrist” technique. But if the notes have only staccato dots, I would not worry about counting “half” the value (or any fraction, for that matter). Keeping track of the overall rhythm is hard enough. Simply tap staccato notes, keeping your overall tempo intact. If beginning players can play legato smoothly and play staccato as I have described, I believe they will have achieved a very acceptable level of musicianship that will serve them well in most performance situations. So…if legato, play smoothly. If staccato, I say tap-tap-tap away!