The Art in Articulation

How many ways can you articulate a note? This question is akin to asking: How many ways can you articulate spoken words and phrases? I think the ways to articulate are limitless. You can use legato, staccato, tenuto, marcato, double tongue, slap tongue, flutter tongue, etc.

When you are playing music, you are speaking a language through your instrument. You have to use your tongue, air, stomach muscles, throat, fingers and more to articulate. When we “sound out” a new word, we do it slowly to get the feel of it in our mouth and body. The same method applies for learning musical phrases.

How Does Articulation Influence Different Styles? Using a variety of articulations helps give feel, style, movement and direction to music. Without variety, the music stagnates. Listen to a Gypsy brass band for some incredible examples.

Why is Articulation Important? Articulation helps define what is being played. Listening to someone play with bad articulation is like trying to have a conversation with someone who mumbles.

How can articulation be expressive and convey emotion? A gentle legato can convey softness in a ballad. The staccato might imply a harder, more aggressive emotion on a funk or New Orleans tune. A flutter tongue or growl might provide a raw emotion associated with early blues traditions. Think about the style, emotion and mood of a piece, and use your articulation as another expressive tool.

How Do You Improve Your Articulation? Work on all major and minor scales and modes in different groupings using various forms of articulation. For example, in C major, ascend C D E F G, descend A G F E D, ascend E F G A B, descend C B A G F, etc. You can do this exercise in groups of 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 notes. Make it interesting and fun and remember to take it slowly.

About the author

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin is a three-time Grammy Award winning saxophonist, composer, educator, and author. He has been a band member of Dave Matthews Band since 2008.  Jeff also teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Jeff has published “The Saxophone Book,” co-wrote “The Articulate Jazz Musician” with Caleb Chapman, and released “The Road Book” in late 2019. Jeff is a Yamaha and D’Addario Performing Artist and Clinician.  Visit jeffcoffin.com and earuprecords.com for more information.

What to Practice

Jeff Coffin shares practice tips and techniques and encourages musicians to identify five strengths and five weaknesses. From Halftime Magazine, a print publication and online ...