What Is Legato In Music?

what-is-legato-in-musicLegato is a musical term derived from the Italian word for “tied together,” indicating a smooth and connected style of playing or singing, where notes are played or sung in a seamless flow without noticeable breaks between them.

In instrumental music, legato achieves this effect through techniques that vary depending on the instrument, such as sustaining the bowing on string instruments without lifting the bow between notes, connecting notes on a wind instrument by controlling breath and finger movements, or using the sustain pedal on the piano to blend notes together.

In vocal music, singers achieve legato by ensuring a continuous and smooth flow of air and voice between pitches, allowing the melody to unfold with a natural, fluid line.

Legato enhances the expressive quality of music, creating a sense of lyrical phrasing and emotional continuity within a piece.

Legato Musical Definition

Legato, an Italian term meaning “tied together,” is a fundamental concept in music that signifies a smooth, flowing connection between notes. This technique is essential across various musical genres and instruments, including vocal music, where it helps to achieve a seamless, lyrical quality in melodies.

Understanding legato and its application offers insight into the expressive potential of musical performance, highlighting the importance of phrasing, articulation, and emotional expression in music.

The Essence of Legato

At its core, legato is about producing a series of notes in such a way that they appear to be seamlessly connected, with no audible breaks or spaces between them. This is achieved by ensuring that each note is sustained up to the very beginning of the next note, creating a continuous sound flow.

In instrumental music, legato requires specific techniques tailored to each instrument’s mechanics, while in singing, it involves careful control of breath and vocal cords to ensure smooth transitions between pitches.

Legato Across Instruments

The implementation of legato varies significantly across different musical instruments, each with its method to achieve this flowing sound.

String Instruments: On instruments like the violin or cello, legato is achieved through continuous bowing across strings without lifting the bow, allowing the notes to blend smoothly into one another.

Wind Instruments: Wind players, such as flutists or clarinetists, use controlled breath and finger movements to connect notes without gaps, often employing techniques like slurring to facilitate legato playing.

Piano: Pianists use the sustain pedal to blend notes together, alongside careful finger legato techniques that ensure a smooth transition between keys without unnecessary force or breaks.

Voice: In vocal music, legato requires the singer to maintain a steady, controlled flow of air and to use precise vocal techniques to move fluidly from one note to the next, avoiding any choppiness in the melody.

The Role of Legato in Musical Expression

Legato plays a crucial role in musical expression, allowing performers to shape phrases and convey emotions more effectively. By smoothing out the space between notes, legato contributes to the lyrical quality of music, emphasizing the melodic line’s continuity and emotional arc.

This technique is particularly important in expressive genres such as opera, lieder (art songs), and instrumental solos, where the ability to sustain and connect notes underpins the performance’s overall expressiveness.

Legato versus Staccato

To fully appreciate legato, it’s helpful to contrast it with staccato, its opposite in the articulation spectrum. While legato emphasizes smoothness and connection, staccato is characterized by short, detached notes with clear spaces between them.

This contrast between flowing lines and crisp articulation offers composers and performers a rich palette of expressive tools, allowing them to highlight different aspects of the music and evoke a wide range of emotions and textures.

Challenges and Techniques

Mastering legato requires overcoming several challenges, including maintaining consistent tone quality, volume, and pitch throughout a phrase. Musicians often spend years perfecting their legato technique, focusing on breath control, finger dexterity, and bowing or blowing techniques to ensure that each note flows into the next without any loss of sound quality or musical intensity.

Advanced legato playing may also involve techniques like portamento for string players, where the finger slides from one note to another on the same string, creating a noticeable but smooth pitch transition. For singers, achieving legato often involves exercises designed to improve breath support and vocal cord coordination, ensuring that phrases are sung with a consistent, flowing sound.

Legato in Musical Genres

While legato is a principle that transcends musical genres, its usage and importance can vary depending on the style of music.

In classical music, legato articulation is often used to convey the lyrical beauty of melodies, particularly in romantic compositions where expressiveness and emotional depth are paramount.

In jazz, legato playing can add a sense of fluidity and ease to solos, while in pop and rock, it can help to create catchy, memorable hooks and lines.

The Artistic Implications of Legato

The use of legato goes beyond mere technique, touching on the artistic and expressive heart of musical performance. It’s a tool that allows musicians to draw listeners into the narrative of the music, creating an immersive experience that can convey a wide range of emotions, from joy and longing to sorrow and tranquility.

The ability to execute legato effectively can elevate a performance, transforming it from a series of notes into a cohesive, compelling musical statement.


Legato is more than just a technical requirement; it’s a vital component of musical expression that enables performers to convey the subtleties and nuances of a piece.

Whether through the sustained bowing of a violin, the controlled breath of a flutist, the delicate touch of a pianist, or the smooth vocal lines of a singer, legato provides a means to achieve musical continuity and emotional depth.

As both a challenge and a goal for musicians, mastering legato is a lifelong journey that offers endless opportunities for exploration and expression, making it an essential concept in the study and performance of music.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does a musician achieve legato on instruments that inherently produce discrete notes, such as a piano or guitar?

On instruments like the piano or guitar, where notes are produced discretely, achieving legato involves specific techniques to create the illusion of seamless sound. Pianists use the sustain pedal to allow notes to overlap slightly, combined with finger legato, where keys are pressed and released smoothly to connect sounds.

Guitarists employ a combination of finger positioning and picking techniques, such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, to ensure that notes flow into one another without audible breaks, creating a legato effect despite the instrument’s nature.

Is legato applicable to all musical genres, or is it specific to certain styles?

Legato is a universal musical technique applicable across all genres, from classical to jazz, pop, rock, and beyond. Its use varies by style; in classical music, legato often carries emotional weight and lyrical expression, while in jazz, it adds smoothness and fluidity to solos.

In pop and rock, legato can be used to create catchy, memorable melodies. The technique’s adaptability to different musical contexts highlights its importance in achieving expressiveness and continuity in melody regardless of genre.

Can legato be combined with other articulations in a single musical phrase?

Yes, legato can be combined with other articulations within a single musical phrase to create contrast and enhance expression. Musicians often intersperse legato passages with staccato notes for dramatic effect or to emphasize certain beats or motifs.

This combination of smooth, connected notes with sharper, detached ones adds dynamic interest and articulative variety, enriching the musical texture and conveying complex emotions or characteristics within a piece.

What are the primary challenges musicians face when trying to master legato technique?

Mastering legato technique presents several challenges, including maintaining consistent tone quality, volume, and smoothness across a phrase. For wind and brass players, this requires precise breath control and seamless coordination of finger movements.

String players must develop bowing techniques that allow for uninterrupted sound production.

Pianists and guitarists face the task of coordinating hand movements to ensure notes blend without losing clarity. Across all instruments, achieving legato necessitates a deep understanding of the instrument’s mechanics and considerable practice to execute this expressive articulation effectively.

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