Reply To: Slurs vs. Phrase markings

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Hi: The “slur” mark has not been used consistently by composers and/or publishers throughout music history. Thus, it often raises questions/debates, just like the question you’re asking.

You are correct that in wind music, a slur mark often means to play a series of notes without rearticulating with the tongue, and/or all within one breath. However, some composers and/or publishers have (and some still do) used it more generally to indicate phrasing.

So, how is a performer/conductor/teacher supposed to know which way it’s being used in a particular piece? The best thing to do is look at all the contextual evidence, and make your best-informed decision as to what it means. Things that can be taken into consideration include:

– The context within this particular piece. Look over the entire part, and the entire score; that might yieled some clues as to how it’s being used. For example: Are there times when repeated notes are slurred together? Then obviously they must be rearticulated, but the slur indicates to connect them smoothly. Conversely, are there a lot of slurs which seem too long to be played in a single breath? Then that could be a clue that they’re indicating phrasing. Etc., etc.

– The context of the genre. (discussed below)

– The context of the historical period. Slurs were used differently in original editions of Classical era music than in Romantic era music.

– The context of this particular composer and/or publisher. For example: In string music, a slur means something very specific: Keep the bow moving in the same direction. However, in Mahler’s music, you’ll find ridiculously long slurs, which obviously need a change of bow direction; the slurs thus mean phrasing, not bowing. That’s surprising, because Mahler was a professional conductor; you would think that he would notate his own scores using the conventions that players would expect!

Again, there are no strict rules; you have to make an educated decision based on the evidence (and your musical instinct).

When I teach orchestration and choral arranging, here are the conventions that I teach on how to use slurs; again, you’ll find that not every composer/publisher follows these strictly, but they’re often a good place to start your decision-making process:

– In Woodwind and Brass music, a slur generally means two things: 1) Don’t rearticulate with the tongue; and/or 2) play all the notes under the slur in one breath. But again, you’ll find many exceptions to this. For example: Trombones MUST rearticulate each note; otherwise they’ll get glissandos between the notes, so the slur means to play as connected as possible, even with the tonguing. And in Woodwind music, you’ll often see staccato dots under a slur; this means to rearticulate each note gently.

– In String music, a slur often is used to indicate bowing, i.e. keep the bow moving in one direction, and then change the bow direction between slurs (unless otherwise indicated). However, as I mentioned with the Mahler example, many composers who weren’t/aren’t string players use slurs to indicate phrasing; or, they do their best to figure out what they think is a good bowing, but know that players will inevitably change the given bowings (and add/subtract slurs from the parts with pencil) to make them more idiomatic. If you look at any hand-marked string part, you’ll see how much the players (usually decided by the section leaders, or the conductor for young groups) mark into their parts, and how they use the slur very specifically to indicate bowings for the section to bow together.

– In Vocal music, a slur is almost never used to indicate general phrasing. Rather, it is almost always used to indicate a melisma (i.e. when a single syllable is stretched over two or more notes). Sometimes a composer and/or publisher might use dotted slurs when they want to indicate a specific phrasing effect that’s not intuitive, so that the phrasing slur and the melisma slur look different.

– In Piano music, the slur most often indicates general phrasing. Specific pedaling effects are indicated using such as Ped, *, or an extended bracket.

Because of all of this confusion, some contemporary composers/editors use slurs to indicate the specific playing techniques discussed above, and add longer dotted slurs to indicate phrasing; even though this clarifies things a lot, this practice is not widespread. Other composers/editors will add a note in the score/parts, stating whether the slur means the specific playing technique or the general phrasing; you’ll find this most often in string music (e.g. when the composer decides that he/she doesn’t know enough about bowing to even attempt to make suggestions, and uses the slur just for phrasing, and lets the player mark in the specific bowings), but again this isn’t a widespread practice.

Whew! I bet you didn’t expect such a detailed and complicated answer! But, as I mentioned, the question you asked is a very common source of debate/confusion; so it’s good to know all of this detail to make your best-informed decision as to what it means in a particular piece.

Feel free to ask for clarification if anything I said is confusing. Or, if you’d like, feel free to e-mail me a scanned PDF of the phrase/piece in question, and I’ll give you my opinion as to what it might mean. You can send it to me at:

Good luck!
…Paul Siskind