TRUE or FALSE? A Slur is a curved line that tells you to connect all the notes grouped underneath it.
a) If you said TRUE you are correct. A slur is a curved line and generally, a legato touch is used on notes within a slur.
b) But, if you said FALSE you might also be correct! Do you believe that a slur tells you that there is a lift or breath at the end? That the notes under the slur should be shaped? How about; a slur is a phrase marking? Good for you! But wait – There’s more! Before we get to the “there’s more” part, there is one statement that is really and truly FALSE:
c) If you said a slur means not to play the last note of the slur again >>> you are incorrect! That curved line is a TIE which is sometimes confused with a slur. A tie is like an addition sign. You hold the note for the combined total of all the notes which are tied together. You can find a Tie correctly every time if you remember this easy rule: When a note is tied, the curved line connects from one pitch to another pitch on the same line or space. For example Middle C to Middle C.
All right, back to our friend The Slur! While a slur does generally mean to play legato, it is also chock full of other information! A slur can tell you how things should sound, how they should feel, and how many notes should be grouped together. Best of all, all the slurs in a piece work together to help you organize and communicate musical meaning.
a. When you speak, you group syllables into words and then words into sentences. Commas and periods help you to know how to group the words to create meaning. There is a natural rise and fall – called inflection – to your voice. You make your voice stronger to stress syllables within words and to stress important words within sentences.
b. When you play music, slurs tell you how many notes are in a group but they also tell you how to inflect those notes. Shorter slurs are the musical equivalent of syllables and longer slurs are like commas and periods in sentences. No matter how long the slurs are, the notes within them must sound inflected. Some teachers call this shaping. Generally, the first note sounds strongest or loudest and the last note sounds weakest or softest. Often, a lift or breath steals some of the value of the last note. All the notes between the first and last note should be shaped in order to highlight the most important notes.
c. Yes, slurs usually indicate that the notes underneath should sound connected and feel legato. Fingers should feel a connection from the bottom of one key to the bottom of the next. However, slurs also indicate other things about how a group of notes will feel. When you inflect a group of notes you will feel your arm carry energy that moves into the stronger notes in the group and away from the weaker ones. You will generally feel a burst of energy as you begin a group of notes. Many pianists describe the feeling of the final note of a slur as lifted or “up”. The movement that your arm, wrist, and hand makes as you move though the slur is called a gesture. Most teachers agree that slurred gestures should be curved and not rigid, bounced, or karate chopped.
d. Composers use slurs to help musicians create meaning. As a musician, you group the slurs into larger sections- like paragraphs and chapters. In early level pieces, slurs are often used only to indicate entire musical sentences- called phrases. But, once you start playing piano literature, you will notice a variety of different slurs. Sometimes the composer uses one long phrase-mark over several shorter slurs in order to help you interpret the piece. Other times there are no phrase-marks at all and you must group the slurs into phrases yourself. Within a large section of a piece, some slurred groups are more important than others. Changing the importance of a group of notes or an entire phrase can either add forward motion or pull that motion back.
Let’s try our quiz again – Which of the following are True?
a) A slur means to play the notes grouped underneath it legato.
b) The first note of a slur is usually stronger and the last note weaker.
c) Usually, a slur ends with a lift or breath.
d) Slurs indicate appropriate arm, wrist, and hand gestures.
e) Slurs indicate how a group of notes will sound and feel.
f) Slurs can be grouped into phrases and larger sections in a piece.
g) Changing the importance of an entire slurred group can add forward motion or take it away.
h) All of the above!
If you answered h) All of the above! You are correct.
The next time you pick up a piece of music, look at the slurs carefully and ask yourself a few questions:
1. How should the beginning and end of this slur sound and feel?
2. If there are more than 2 notes grouped within the slur, how should I shape them to highlight the most important note or notes?
3. What physical gesture will I use to allow my body to play and shape the slur so it sounds exactly as I want?
4. Does this slur indicate a complete phrase or individual elements within a phrase?
5. If I am grouping several slurs together into one phrase do I want a lift or breath between every single one of them?
6. How does the slur fit into a larger section of the piece? Does it move the music forward or allow it to relax?