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Reading rhythm, part 10: staccato notes

Part of a 12-part course on reading rhythm.

We already covered the fact that if you put a dot after a note it multiplies its length by 112. However, you will sometimes see a dot above or below a note, e.g. at the start of the “Andante” from Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony:

which sounds like this (just listen to the first 18 seconds):

So what’s going on here?

The notes are obviously “detached”, which is in fact exactly what they’re called – “staccato”, which means “detached” in Italian – but we can be a bit more precise than that.

Staccato notes

Here’s the rule:

  • a dot above or below a note means that you play it as a note half its length, followed by a rest of equal length

That’s a bit of a headache but is much easier to understand if you see it illustrated (click the image to download the PDF):

staccato chart

So the opening of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony is written like this:

Surprise Symphony

but is played like this (“ten.” is short for “tenuto” which means “held”):

Surprise Symphony with rests

And the LH of Bizet’s “Toreador Song” is written like this:

Toreador song

but is played like this:

Toreador song with rests

(Click on any of the images for PDF’s of the full scores.)

Sometimes a staccato note is even shorter than half its length. For instance, in the original orchestral version of Albinoni’s Adagio the bass was played by pizzicato (“plucked”) strings, which I wrote as staccato 14-notes:

Albinoni Adagio

However, I recommend playing them as 116-notes rather than as 18-notes (i.e. as a quarter of their written length rather than as a half), to get the full pizzicato effect:

Albinoni Adagio rests

Why not just write the music the way it’s played? Because a note with a staccato dot is much easier to read and write than a note half its length followed by a rest. (Remember that music notation was originally hand-written.) In each of the above pairs of scores the 1st example is less cluttered than the 2nd.

Next: counting 18-beats.