Ornamentation and embellishments have been added to solo performances for centuries.
In early music, improvised musical ornaments were one of the ways in which a talented performer could demonstrate their abilities.
Over the years some of these improvised embellishments became commonplace and lists of standard musical ornaments developed, each with their own symbols.
In the Baroque period (1600-1750), a very large number of ornamentation markings were used.
However, these could often be confusing as the interpretation of each of the markings varied depending on aspects such as the time period, the geographical location and even the preferences of the individual composer!
Many people (including J.S. Bach) produced summary lists of musical ornaments to try to standardise their use.
To this day, there is often still some debate about how to “accurately” play different ornaments.
Helpfully, many editions of sheet music have notes produced by the editors to help describe how the ornaments should be appropriately played.
I have put together a list with audio examples of the most common musical ornaments that you will come across.
List of Common Musical Ornaments
One of the most common musical ornaments you will see is a trill.
A trill is a fast alternation between 2 adjacent notes.
The basic trill is written as follows:
Performing a Trill
The trill is a clear example of how the performance of musical ornaments differs according to the time period from which the piece of music you are playing comes from!
It is definitely worth checking the accompanying editor’s notes in the sheet music when you have a piece containing trills.
Typically a trill ends with the addition of a penultimate note below the principal note.
Sometimes composers will notate this through grace notes (but not always):
The question of how many alternations should be played in a trill is one of the most common questions I am asked.
There is not set rule for this, but tempo is certainly a major factor in determining how many alternations can be fitted in, if only for practical reason that it is possible to get more alternations in when the tempo is slow than when it is fast!
Again, context, personal interpretation and a good set of editor’s notes are all helpful in making these decisions.
Trills With Accidental Notes
Sometimes the pitch of the upper note of a trill needs to be changed by an accidental to fit with the intended harmony.
This can be indicated in one of two ways:
Grace notes are written as small-sized notes before a full-size note in a melody.
They are not counted in overall note lengths of the bar – all of the rhythms in the bar will add up to a complete bar without the grace notes.
A single grace note is written as a small-sized quaver with a line through it.
It is joined to the next note by a small slur.
There are 3 typical ways in which a grace note can be performed:
When 2 or more grace notes are added then they are usually shown as semiquavers (or shorter values) beamed together.
As with many musical ornaments there is some debate as to how to interpret them, particularly concerning whether the grace notes should be played on the beat or before the beat.
Composers often give clear guidance on this when grace notes occur at the start of a bar by positioning the grace notes either before or after the barline.
For example, in this extract the grace notes are clearly intended to be performed before the 1st note of the bar.
When playing a piece of music the editor notes in the manuscript will help guide you in your interpretation of grace notes.
There are 2 main types of mordent you will come across – an upper mordent and a lower mordent or inverted mordent.
(although it is worth noting that the mordent has developed over time and so some Baroque music may lend itself to a different interpretation).
An upper mordent is indicated by a wavy line and a lower mordent is shown by a wavy line with a vertical line crossing through it:
You can hear clearly how the addition of a lower mordent to each opening phrase of the different voices adds emphasis to the note.
Sometimes you will see a mordent written with a small accidental written above or below it. This means that the note that is alternated with should be played with the accidental applied. For example, in the following sheet music you can see and hear how a flat and a sharp can be applied to an upper and lower mordent respectively:
The Turn (or grupetto) is written….
Alternatively, a musical turn can be written directly above a note….
….in which case it sounds….
An appoggiatura is written….
An acciaccatura is like a shortened appoggiatura and is written like the appoggiatura, but with a line through it….
An arpeggiation is where the notes of a chord are to be played one after the other as rapidly as possible.
It is shown by the following symbol:
Musical Ornaments List
Performing Music Ornaments
The interpretation of musical ornaments is one that gives rise to considerable debate between musicians and can often be one of the distinctive features of an individual performer’s style.
The main advice I would give on how to play ornaments is to do the following:
- Read the editor notes in the sheet music – these are often written by leading music scholars in their field/instrument of study
- Listen to professional performers and how they interpret the ornaments in the specific piece you are learning to play
- Feedback – ask for feedback from your teacher or from other friends/family who you perform the piece to
I really hope this lesson has given you an insight into how to read and perform musical ornaments.