Ornaments (Embellishment)

A great way to beautify a musical composition

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Ornaments in music

Embellishment is to beautify something by additions. In music, ornaments or embellishments are additional notes that are not essential to carry the line of the melody or harmony, but instead, serve to decorate that line or harmony. We use ornaments to add interest and variety. They give us the opportunity to add expressiveness to a piece of music.

In music, there are many types of ornaments, ranging from an additional short note to fast notes around main notes. The amount of ornamentation can vary too. For example, in the Baroque period, the amount of ornamentation was extensive. It was up to performers to improvise ornaments on melodic lines. On the other hand, in today’s music, composers indicate ornaments in notation. While standard ornaments are indicated by symbols in music notation, we add the other ornaments to the score in small notes or small parts. Now let’s learn the standard ornaments in Western classical music.

Ornaments

Grace Note

A grace note is an extra note that we add as an embellishment. In musical notation, we indicate a grace note by placing a smaller note before a regular note. The grace notes are not essential to the harmony or melody. They represent ornaments. Grace notes usually appear as an appoggiatura or an acciaccatura ornaments. In these ornaments, grace notes occur as short notes. Then, longer main (principal) notes immediately follow them. Now let’s learn the ornaments with grace notes.

Appoggiatura

The Appoggiatura is a grace note that temporarily displaces and subsequently resolves into a main note. The term derives from Italian appoggiare. It means to lean. We indicate the appoggiatura by a grace note prefixed to the main note. It lies to the left of the main note. We play an appoggiatura on the beat. The main note follows it. We determine the duration of an appoggiatura by the note value of the main note. If the main note is undotted, then the appoggiatura takes half its value. Then the main note takes the remainder. Let’s see this in an example.

Appoggiatura
Appoggiatura (Written and played)

In this example, we play the appoggiatura as a quarter note. Then the main note comes. It is a quarter note too.

If the principal note is dotted, then the appoggiatura takes two thirds its value.Then the main note takes the remainder. Let’s see this in an example.

Appoggiatura on a dotted note
Appoggiatura on a dotted note (Written and played)

Acciaccatura

The Acciaccatura or short appoggiatura is a shorter version of the appoggiatura where the delay of the main note is quick. The term derives from Italian acciaccare. It means to crush. We write it by using a grace note (often a quaver, or eighth note) with an oblique stroke through the stem. We usually play the grace note of the acciaccatura before the beat. Then we play the main note on the beat. This way the emphasis would be on the main note, note the grace note. Let’s see this in an example.

Acciaccatura
Acciaccatura (Written and played)

In this example, we play the acciaccatura before the beat. Then we play the main note on the beat. Sometimes we use more than one grace note to crush. Here is an example.

Acciaccatura
Acciaccatura with two grace notes (Written and played)

Turn

A turn is an ornament which has an S-shape mark lying on its side above the staff. Bach called it a cadence. We place this ornament above the note that we want to embellish with a turn. It has a specific pattern consisting of four notes. We play the note above the note with the sign. Then we play the note with the sign. After that, we play the note below the note with the sign. Then we play the note with the sign again and finish the turn. So the note with the ornament acts like a gravitational center. Here is an example.

Turn
A turn (Written and played)

In this example, you can see how we mark a turn on a note and how we exactly perform it. The exact speed at which the notes of a turn are played can vary. In fact, how we best execute a turn largely depends on the context, and taste.  Here is another example.

A turn with an alternative performance
A turn with an alternative performance (Written and played)

When we place the turn between two notes, we play it after the main note sounds. We determine the exact rhythm of the turn by the amount of time available for it. Here is an example.

A turn between two notes
A turn between two notes (Written and played)

Trill

A trill is a musical ornament consisting of a rapid alternation between two adjacent notes, usually a half step or whole step apart. We use a shake sign or tr sign to indicate a trill.

Trill
Trill

The speed and duration of a trill can vary according to the musical context and the taste of the performer. Trill was known as a shake from the 16th century until the 19th century. Trill is one of the most problematic ornaments. Because there are many different kinds of trills, each right for a particular situation or period.

In its simplest form, a trill starts on the note (auxiliary note) above the note with the trill sign (main note) and it goes like a rapid alternation between those two notes. Here are some examples of trills in Bach’s music. Notice that they all begin on the beat.

Trill

Trill

Trill

Trill

Trill

Trill with Prefix

In music, there are also complex forms of trills. A complex trill usually has three elements: A preparation or prefix, a shake, and a termination or turn. The preparation part can be a long or short appoggiatura that we play on the beat. There are two kinds of preparations.

Preparations (Trills with prefix)

Ascending Trill (The Trill With Prefix From Below):

If the preparation of a trill consists of two notes ascending to the note with the trill sign, we call it an ascending trill. Here is an example.

Ascending Trill
Ascending Trill (Written and played)

Notice that a hook extending down from the beginning of the trill sign. It indicates a prefix starting below the main note.

Descending Trill (The Trill With Prefix From Above):

If the preparation of a trill consists of two notes descending to the note with the trill sign, we call it a descending trill. Here is an example.

Descending Trill
Descending Trill (Written and played)

Notice that a hook extending up from the beginning of the trill sign. It indicates a prefix starting above the main note.

We play both preparations on the beat. Their notes have the same time value with the notes of the trill.

Shake

After the preparation part, the shake comes. The shake usually begins on the note above the note with the trill sign and it finishes on that main note. When we place a sharp, flat or natural sign above the trill symbol, this indicates a chromatic inflection of the auxiliary note.

Turn (Trills With Termination)

The turn part is usually optional. But rather than finishing the trill with the note above or below the main note, performers usually add a turn immediately before the last sounding of the main note. This way, the trill can end with the main note.

If the composer expects a specific way of trilling from performers, he/she can indicate it on the sheet. Also, we can indicate the length of a trill by increasing the length of the shake sign or by adding a shake sign (~) on the right of tr sign.  Now let’s have a look at some examples of trills.

Trill Example
A simple trill with a shake (Written and played)
Trill Example
Long appoggiatura before a trill (Written and played)
Trill Example
A trill with a termination (turn)

Mordent

A mordent is an ornament indicating that we should play the marked note with a rapid alternation with the note above or below. We first play the note with the mordent sign. Then we play the note (half or whole step) below. Eventually, we play the note with the sign again. This is sometimes called a lower mordent to distinguish it from the 19th-century mordent. We should play the mordent quickly. It should start on the beat. Here is an example:

Lower Mordent
Lower Mordent (Written and played)

In the 19th Century, the sequence of the notes of the mordent changed. It is sometimes called an upper mordent to distinguish it from the original mordent. There are two differences between these two mordents. The sign of the original mordent is a shake sign with a vertical line. But, the sign of the 19th-century mordent is a shake sign with no lines. As you may notice, the sign of the 19th-century mordent is identical with a trill sign of the previous centuries. This is why it causes too much confusion. The second difference is in performance. In the original (lower) mordent, we play the note below after the note with the mordent sign. However, in the 19th-century mordent, we play the note above after the note with the mordent sign. Here is an example of the 19th-century mordent:

Upper Mordent
Upper Mordent (Written and played)

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