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What is a glissando and when do I use it?

By Scott Houston
Want a fun way to make your playing sound more professional on the piano? Maybe you want to amp up the drama on a specific piece? Consider adding a glissando to your bag of tricks! Also known as the “gliss” or “slide” technique, the glissando is a modern move popularized by the rockabilly movement in the 1950s. 

This fun embellishment can be intimidating—but it doesn’t have to be! Keep reading to learn about what a glissando is and get professional tips for practicing while protecting your hands and piano.

Glissando definition and types

Coming from the French word “glissant” meaning “to slide”—the Italian word “glissando” is a musical term that refers to a way of gliding or flowing from one note to the next. It occurs when you play a continuous slide upward or downward between at least two notes on an instrument.

Stringed instruments like guitars and violins can produce what is known as a continuous glissando, traditionally called “portamento” in Italian. Watch this one-minute video to hear how easily the different notes blend together.
When a glissando is played on the piano (or on the harp or xylophone), each individual note can be distinctly heard, producing what is called a discrete glissando. Watch this scene from the new Top Gun movie below to see Miles Teller perform a few discrete glissandos while playing “Great Balls of Fire.” He gets into it around the 1:00 minute mark!

Tips for playing a glissando on the piano

Though you can’t simply run your fingers down a piano like a child would and call it glissando, the technique is still relatively simple to pick up even for people who are just learning to play. Be prepared to use your fingers a little more aggressively than you would with regular piano playing, but remember—it should not be painful! Watch this quick video to see step by step instructions and my top four tips for mastering this technique in a comfortable, pain-free way!

  • Use a vertical hand position that is perpendicular to the keys so that you are using your fingernails
  • Use your thumb instead of using all your fingers
  • Use two fingers with your index finger being slightly down further than your middle finger and drag upwards
  • Use two fingers with an interval of space between them as you run down the keys

When to use it

You can use the glissando just about anywhere in a song—as a fabulous introduction, as an unexpected transition, or to end the tune with a bang! Popular songs like The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” are great examples of how a gliss can be used at the beginning of a song to really get it going. 

You can also use the slide to transition out of a solo or to break up the monotony in the middle—the tricky part about that is that you have to prepare for it. That dramatic flourish definitely takes a little confidence to pull off and it’s much easier with practice and planning! When ending a song with the technique, remember to cap off your glissando with the root of whatever chord you’re on.

Protecting your piano

Unless you’re performing glissandos song after song, night after night, you probably don’t need to worry about damaging your piano. In fact, pianos that sit unused are much worse off than pianos that play the occasional gliss! If you have an acoustic piano, be sure that you are following these tips to keep it in tip-top shape. This is important whether you play slides or not!

More piano tricks

Whether you’re an amateur player who’s ready to add some more techniques to their bag of tricks or a complete novice who’s always dreamed of playing, I’d love to tell you more about how my teaching method and online piano lessons could be just the thing to get you on the bench! Click the button below to download this Essential Guide to Learning Piano for Adults to get all the details about my beginner to advanced lessons.