Accents and Markings - Making Sense of "^" and "."

Often you will see little markings above and below the notes. I'll attempt to explain what the most common ones mean here.


Imagine all of the different ways you can play or sing the same note. You can hit the note hard or soft, touch it quickly or more smoothly. Basically, accents and markings over and under notes serve this purpose. They explain how the note should be played.

Why Over? Why Under?

It's quite simple to understand why the marks are above a note or below. If the stem on the note goes up, then the mark goes below. If the stem goes down, the mark goes above. This isn't always the rule however.   If the marking is going to be in the way of other notes, or hard to see, then sometimes it is placed at the end of the stem. This is fairly unusual however.

It doesn't really matter where the marking is, it is still played the same way.

examples of various accents and markings used in musical notation.

examples of various types of accents.


In music notation, an accent mark indicates a louder dynamic to apply to a single note, or an articulation mark. The most common is the horizontal accent, the fourth symbol in the diagram above; this is the symbol that most musicians mean when they say accent mark. The vertical accent, third in the diagram, may be stronger or weaker than the horizontal accent; composers have never been consistent in using these markings. The vertical accent has many informal names such as a teepee, housetop, or mamba-jamba. In most musical works this type of accent is meant to be played more forcefully and usually shorter. The remaining marks typically shorten a note.

Staccato, the first symbol shown above, indicates that the last part of a note should be silenced to create separation between it and the following note. The duration of a staccato note may be about half as long as the note value would indicate, although the tempo and performers' taste varies this quite a bit.

The staccatissimo, shown second, is usually interpreted as shorter than the staccato, but composers up to the time of Mozart used these symbols interchangeably. A staccatissimo quarter note would be correctly played in traditional art music as a lightly articulated sixteenth note followed by rests which fill the remainder of the beat.

The third one shown, the vertical accent, is played with the same dynamics as a regular accent mark but condensed into about half the original length of the note (depending on style, song, preference, etc.), essentially a combination of accent and staccato. This type of accent is known incorrectly as marcato by many classically-trained musicians, and even as just a "rooftop accent" by those not knowing its name at all. It is correctly known as martelato or martellato, which is Italian for "hammered".

The fourth mark shown, the Accent mark, indicates that the marked note should have an emphasized beginning and then taper off rather quickly. This mark is correctly known by classically trained musicians as marcato, though it is usually simply referred to as an accent.

The tenuto mark, shown fifth above, indicates that a note is to be separated with a little space from surrounding notes. This separation may be enough to emphasize the note, or it may have to be played a little louder, at the discretion of the player. The tenuto mark also indicates that the note should be played for its full value - not cut off earlier. Sometimes these symbols are used in combination. Tenuto is Italian for "sustained," and notes should be played as full valued as possible with a medium strengthed, legato accent.

Even when these symbols are absent, experienced musicians will introduce the appropriate gesture according to the style of the music.


Note: As you may have noticed in the examples above, you can combine accent markings. This merges the attributes of the two types together. A 'marcato accent' combined with a 'staccato' would be a very short marked accent.