Robert Estrin - piano expert

Does Staccato Mean Short?

Learn what staccato really means

In this video, Robert teaches you the real meaning of staccato in music.

Released on November 17, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert Estrin here at The question today is, does staccato mean short? You know the dots over or under notes? You see them, you think, "Oh, you're supposed to play short, right?" For example, Clementi Opus 36, Number One, the famous sonatina. And you've got staccatos.

I know not all additions have staccatos, but they should because that sounds really good, playing a crisp, short staccato. So does staccato mean short? You think we're all done here? No, not by a long shot. Do you know staccato does not mean short? Now, why are staccatos played short then? Well, they aren't always played short. Staccato actually means detached. It's the opposite of a slur where you play smoothly, connected. Staccato tells you to detach the notes.

Now, in a fast tempo like the Clementi Sonatina Opus 36, Number One, yeah, they're going to be short. But when you're playing something that's slow... Have you ever had a piece that's slow with a staccato on it? You wonder, what does that mean? Well, oftentimes composers will write notes with rests if they want really short staccatos in a slow tempo. So if you had four four time, if you had half notes with staccatos, instead of writing half notes with staccatos, they might write a quarter note with a staccato followed by a quarter rest, another quarter note staccato followed by a quarter rest. So you have quarter note, quarter rest, quarter note, quarter rest, which already gives you the separation. One, two, three, four. Right? And if it's staccato, then you play them even shorter, ostensibly.

Well, I'm going to give you an example where there are half notes in a fast tempo, something in cut time, in two two time, and that's the famous Pathetique Sonata of Beethoven. You know, of course, the...

But after that opening slow section, it goes to an Allegro and it's really fast and you've got staccato quarter notes followed by staccato half notes. I'm going to play it with all the notes equally short, the quarter notes short and the staccato half notes short, and this is what it would sound like.

Now, you've probably never heard it that way because those half notes should not really be short. Should they be detached? Absolutely. The way I interpret it is to play those half notes like quarter notes followed by quarter rests, so they have some length, but there's space between them. And this is the way that would sound. I leave the quarter notes staccato because at that tempo, it's very difficult to detach the quarter notes without playing them short. But the half notes, of course you can detach them without playing them short, and you'll come up with something that sounds like this.

So that is what Beethoven intended, I believe. Love to hear from any of you about this. But this is only one aspect and one place. Anytime you have staccatos in a slow movement, they are not generally to be played short. It's out of character. The staccatos simply mean to detach the notes.

Now, there are always exceptions to what I'm saying. Context is everything, but generally speaking slow movement staccatos are longer notes that are detached and fast movement staccatos are short and crisp, in general. And of course I showed you an exception right here where Beethoven writes staccatos on half notes. So take it with a grain of salt. Look at what makes sense in the score. Why would he write staccatos on half notes? It doesn't make much sense for them to be as short as the quarter notes, does it?

I'm interested in hearing from all of you about this Beethoven Pathetique and Beethoven's urtext markings of staccatos on quarters and halves, as well as any other questions you have about staccatos in any context. I'm here for you. Just email me,, your online piano resource. Thanks so much for joining me. And all you subscribers, it means the world to me. Ringing that bell brings this into more eyeballs on YouTube. Thanks for joining me. We'll see you next time.
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