Legato is a term that means “smooth and connected”. In music, it describes a series of two or more notes that have little to no interruption between them. It’s a performance technique that’s used in practically every genre of music.
How Legato is Notated in Sheet Music
On a piece of sheet music, legato notes have a curved line placed above or below the group.
How Legato is Performed on Piano
The piano is technically a percussion instrument, so it can’t perform a “true” legato. You’ll have to create the “feeling” of legato through performance.
Typically, you perform legato on piano by slightly overlapping the notes. In other words, you’d only release the first note after starting the second note. You’ll also want to play as smoothly and delicately as possible.
Here’s a great example by theOpenScore on YouTube:
Take all that into consideration when programming MIDI for virtual pianos and keyboards. Make sure that notes are overlapping, and that velocity settings are lower for the connected notes in the phrase.
How Legato Works on Synthesizers
Legato on synthesizers works pretty much the same as piano. In most cases, playing legato means new notes won’t re-trigger the envelope. As a result, you’ll get one continuous sound.
If it’s turned off, the envelope will re-trigger as if the notes were played separately.
Legato vs. Portamento
Portamento is when the pitch slides up or down between notes. It’s a function found on many synths and is often used together with legato. But they are not the same thing.
How Legato is Performed on Other Instruments
If you’re a composer, it helps to know how each instrument behaves when performing legato — even if your sample libraries already do most of the legwork. That way, you can create more realistic-sounding mockups.
Most of them will attack the first note, then slur to the next note without re-attacking it. Here’s how it’s done with most instruments:
- Orchestral Strings — Violin, viola, cello, and bass players perform legato by bowing in one continuous motion. In other words, they bow a note in one direction, then change notes while the bow keeps moving in that same direction.
- Guitar — Plucking strings creates a naturally percussive sound. So instead of picking each note, guitar players use techniques like ‘hammer-ons’ and ‘pull-offs’ to glide between notes. It sounds smoother
- Woodwinds — Wind players can perform legato simply by changing notes without disrupting the air stream.
- Brass — Most brass instruments can play legato the same way as woodwinds.
- Trombones — Trombones are the big exception. They can’t perform true legato without the tone gliding between each note. So instead, they tongue each note very lightly.
Learn Other Music Production Terms
If you want to brush up on your vocabulary, check out our glossary of music and audio terms. We’re always expanding it with new definitions and links to resources.