Syllabic slurs

Syllabic slurs are those slurs that you see in vocal music, joining all the notes that are sung to a single syllable.

I don’t actually like them, myself. The world would be better off without them, for two reasons. One, they don’t tell you anything you don’t already know. A singer knows how long the syllable lasts by referring to the underlay, the hyphens between syllables and the lyric extension lines after final syllables. These things show unambiguously when you change from one syllable to the next, and you can’t avoid seeing them because you have to look at the words. So the slur joining the notes doesn’t add to your knowledge.

And two, given that slurs don’t tell you anything you don’t already know, they are just clutter, and especially on a busy page, you don’t want clutter. A page without syllabic slurs looks fresher than a page with loads of them.

Not only that, but if you are using slurs to echo the underlay information, you don’t use them for the purpose God intended, which is to show phrasing. A quick glance at vocal repertoire will show that most vocal music doesn’t show phrases with slurs. Is that because slurs have come to have this other, less important, role in vocal music? Or is it a sign that actually there’s no conflict at all between the different uses of slurs, because everyone uses them to show underlay, and no one to show phrasing? After all, is not the phrasing obvious from the words themselves?

So now I’ve accidentally argued myself into a situation where slurs aren’t required for phrasing in vocal staves, and aren’t required for underlay, because all of that information comes from the words. So, like a magician whose trick has gone disappointingly wrong at the last minute, I’ve just made slurs on vocal staves utterly redundant.

Hmm, that’s not what I meant to do. From now on I’ll just do what Elaine Gould says, which is this: Use slurs for phrasing if the composer has put them in (though they almost never do), otherwise use syllabic slurs.

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About Neil Sands

Director of the Chichester Music Press. Astronomer.
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9 Responses to Syllabic slurs

  1. Jamie W. Hall says:

    I have to disagree with your stance on syllabic slurs. If they’re missing from copies I’m singing from, I tend to put them in, especially where the music is particularly rapid or difficult, where the eyes are fixed on the stave. It gives a very clear signal for a quick look at the text.

    They are of couse essential in verse settings where block text appears away from the stave.
    It’s very easy to come unstuck if a hymn lacks slurs.

    You’re also correct to say that text is a far greater indicator of phrasing than anything else but i’ve seen enough scores where the composer has either been very prescriptive about phrasing or has decided to go against the natural stress of the words, to feel that phrase marks shouldn’t be dismissed as a rule.
    It’s a judgement thing. Nobody wants an overly cluttered score but the question should always be asked I think.

    • Hello Jamie.

      Even I wouldn’t advocate leaving syllabic slurs out of hymns, as you can see from our Chichester Descant Pack by William Morris.

      In case I’ve not been clear, I’ll make clear now that the purpose of my post is that I am rowing back from my previous stance on this, and will put syllabic slurs in from now on, unless there are phrasing slurs, in which case I’ll put those in instead. I won’t try to include both. This is what Elaine Gould advises in the book I quoted in the article above, and of course it’s what almost everyone except me does.

      I still think the world would be better off if syllabic slurs hadn’t ever existed, but as people (like you) have found a use for them now that they do exist, and have learnt to rely on them, I can see why people would miss them.

  2. John Murdoch says:

    The problem with slurs (since we’re casting slurs), is that they’re easily confused with ties. I think the U.S. federal Department of Useless Regulation ought to enforce a rule that you cannot use a slur on vocal notes, over a tie in the same bars. When I see it happen, I wonder if any extra room could be found in Guantanamo Bay for the miscreant menace who committed this heinous act.

  3. Peter McAleer says:

    Let’s hear it for slurs, they’re great, in all their ambiguity. A page without slurs looks too straightforward. But syllabic slurs? Hmm, over the years, as a singer (rightly or wrongly) I’ve come to rely on them. But I use phrase slurs in vocal music, oh yes siree. “Tell us how you intend the passage to be interpreted”, I hear them cry, “We’ll ignore you, of course, but tell us all the same”. So I do, and so do they.

    That was a passage form my new book about slurs and ambiguity in vocal music called “Phrase it for England Lad.” Available soon. But don’t hold your breath.

  4. John Murdoch says:

    I have an ad hoc, occasional, very amateur choir–most of whom cannot read music. For them, the slur is invaluable–because, to quote one of the tenors, “the swoopy thing shows you where the notes get complicated.”

    But put a slur and a tie on the same page, and…oy, vey.

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