Attack and Decay

Attack is the extent to which the note is hit. Rhythm is communicated through attack. Once hit, how long is the note allowed to sound? Decay is the time within the full duration of the note that the sound is made.

You can program a computer to attack and decay, but how good is the computer at translating attack and decay into written notation? Poor.

You have to know what you’re doing. If you put feel into your notation of attack and decay you bring out the best in the musicians. Great articulation is 90% of an exciting arrangement.

Attack (Accent)

The first beat of the bar is naturally accented.

You can accent any note.

  • Short accent (sounds like) Bop
  • Long accent (sounds like) Doooo

Bop is notated by a cap (^) on the notehead. Doo is notated by (>) on the notehead.

Anticipated notes are naturally accented Doo. An anticipated note attacks off the beat and is tied to the next beat or the next beat begins with a rest.

When stems are pointing down the accent is notated over the notehead. When stems are pointing up the accent is notated under the notehead.

An accented note is always louder than the unaccented notes around it. Bop is naturally louder than Doo.


A note with no specific articulation has a duration of about 90%. When playing a semibreve, the musician will generally take a breath in the last quaver.

A dotted minim tied to a quaver is generally not good notation. A semibreve is better.

However when you are writing for a section (a group of musicians in rhythmic unision), when you want to be sure the note to follow a long tie or slur is evenly attacked by all musicians, you may purposely rest the musician a little early.

This pattern

Could be rewritten like this (for cleaner attack on the next note by a section.)

Legato or slur

A slur is a curved line sweeping over two or more note-heads. Under the slur, notes run smoothly, duration 100%. They sound like Do Ba.

They are naturally articulated with the first note accented and long, the last note short and soft.

The composer may write Legato over the score in addition to or in place of the slurs. The word Legato refers to the entire pulse of music (verse or chorus), whereas the slur refers to just the notes under the curve.

One slur above another is the same as two slurs under one. The slur is the comma, breath mark in the score.

Vocalists, brass and woodwind players wait till the end of the slur to take their breath. Be sure to give them plenty of room.

When musicians are playing in ensemble (the same rhythmic pattern) it is important to articulate their breath. This keeps the section tight. It helps them sound like a team.


In Italian Porta means bring and armento means the art of. Portamento is the art of bringing one note to the next. The first note shifts gracefully to the next.

Not all instruments can portamento. Brass and fretless strings can. Guitars cannot.

The portamento is articulated over short notes as the first note accented, slured into the next.

Over two long notes the word Portamento may be written.


Tenuto notes are long and broad. A tenuto note sounds Baa. It has a slight accent.

You can strengthen the tenuto accent.

Tenuto and Bop combined say, play long, hard and loud.


Staccato notes are broken and short, the direct opposite to portamento.

Staccato suits short (stemmed) notes. It is bad form to staccato semibreves and minims.

There are three kinds of staccato. The dot staccato is the most common.

If you are orchestrating, you may need to study the instrument in line with the staccato effect. For example, strings play dash staccato using a technique called spiccato and dot staccato with a very different technique called detached. The sound effect of each technique is very different.

Dot Staccato

Attack firmly.

Play to half the length of the written note.

The sound is Dut.

In Jazz, a dot staccato crotchet is the same as an unarticulated quaver followed by a quaver rest. Jazz musicians always prefer the staccato crotchet notation.

In symphonic music a dotted crotchet may not be the same as an unarticulated quaver – quaver rest. Check the instrumentation first. Some symphonic players prefer the quaver – quaver rest notation.

A dot staccato is often notated at the end of a slur. A tenuto is often notated at the start of a slur. A tenuto followed by a dot staccato usually implies a slur.

Mezzo Staccato

Attack firmly, and break only slightly between the notes.

Mezzo staccato is written as a tenuto above a dot staccato or a dot staccato under a slur.

Dash Staccato or Staccatissimo

Play the note as short as you can.