Piano Accents & Markings

  So far we have been through the different ways of denoting volume, style, and speed in music. But this has all been for sections of music – what happens when a composer wants to specify single notes to be played in a certain style?

Imagine all of the different ways you can play or sing the same note. You can hit the note firmly and forcefully, or touch it lightly and softly. So how does a composer let the performer know how it should be done?

This is where accents and markings come into play. There are a number of different markings that are used in music to let the pianist know to play a note smoothly, loudly, or abruptly. In this lesson we will only be looking at two of the most common markings: the accent and the staccato.

The most common mark you will see in music is a small dot like a period placed under the note. This is called a staccato. Staccato means that the note is to be played very quickly and abruptly. If there are several staccato notes, there should also be clear gaps between each one resulting in a detached sound.

Listen to the following exercise using staccato and then try playing it yourself. Remember to really bounce your fingers off the keys! Also, keep an eye out for the F sharp.

Another common marking is the accent sign: <. Accents can either be positioned over or under a note, depending on whether the note is positioned above or below the middle line of the stave. If the stem on the note goes up, then the mark goes below. If the stem goes down, the mark goes above. The accent marking means that the note beneath should be played with a very strong emphasis - or as forcefully as you can!

Listen and then play Exercise Two below. This is a minor motif – note the E flats. You might find it useful to write the notes in, especially for the ledger lines. (Ledger lines are the little lines used when a note is outside the main stave.)

For the following piece, every note and chord is played staccato, giving a bouncy, lively effect. The title ‘Hot Coal 2-Step’ gives you some idea of the impression created! In fact, when you are playing staccato, you should treat the keys as if they are too hot to touch for more than the briefest moment.

The final piece in this lesson uses accents to full dramatic effect for the ‘Return of the Dark Lord’! Accents and markings make music so much more alive and emotive. Let your imagination roam when playing this piece. Notice the Italian direction feroce, meaning ‘to be played fiercely’.

Glossary of Terms

Accent: Put stress on, mark.

Feroce: Forceful.

Staccato: Short and detached sounds.

Two-step: American dance style developed in the 1880s.