music theory online : ornamentationlesson 23
Dr. Brian Blood

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I've never known a musician who regretted being one. Whatever deceptions life may have in store for you, music itself is not going to let you down.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) American composer

Introduction :: Accidentals and Ornamentation :: Grace Notes :: Appoggiaturas :: Nachslag :: Turns :: Trills :: Pralltriller :: Mordents :: Vibrato
Arpeggiation :: Divisions

Introduction :: top

Key words:


You may like to begin by listening to four movements from a Handel Organ Concerto performed on a restored eighteenth-century barrel organ pinned within a few decades of Handel's death, work believed to have been supervised by John Christopher Smith [born Johann Christoph Schmidt] (1712-1795), the son of Johann Christoph Schmidt (John Christopher Smith) (died 1763), Handel's principal copyist and later his amanuensis. The son had a few lessons from Handel and Pepusch but studied mostly with Thomas Roseingrave. His first opera was the Italian-style Ulysses (1733); later ones included two written for Garrick and based on Shakespeare - The Fairies (1755), after A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest (1756) - and a successful afterpiece, The Enchanter (1760). Several others remained unperformed. In 1759-68 he directed the annual performances of Messiah at the Foundling Hospital, where he was organist. Of his own oratorios, mostly written in the 1760s, Paradise Lost (1760) was the greatest success; three later ones were largely adaptations of Handel. Among his other works are five volumes of harpsichord music (1732-63) and a funeral service (1772) for the dowager Princess of Wales, who was his harpsichord pupil. He retired to Bath in the 1770s.


  • John Christopher Smith [Johann Christoph Schmidt] from which this information has been taken

    To those familiar with these movements, the barrel organ interpretations may come as something of a shock! The profusion of graces and other ornaments might even lead us to sympathise with Joseph Engramelle (1727-1805), writing in 1775, that 'Lulli, Corelli, Couprin and Rameau himself would be appalled if they could hear the way their music is performed today.'

    Arnold Dolmetsch, the author of Interpretation of Music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1915), was one of the first to explain how a performer was expected to employ ornamentation in the performance of what today we call "early music". Ornamentation was essential to that performance and to miss it out made as much sense as leaving out any of the written notes. Indeed, a study of original sources indicates to what degree performers were expected to 'expand upon' what was written, either through careful preparation or 'on the spur of the moment'.

    In Musical Borrowings, edited by J. Peter Burkholder, Andreas Giger, and David C. Birchler, we learn a little about the sixteenth-century approach to ornamentation.

    embellishment in sixteenth-century Italian intabulations ranged from the more sparing use of ornaments by mid-century lutenists to a much heavier and consistent use of ornamentation in the 1580s and 1590s. A comparison of several intabulations from the mid-century reveals a similar procedure of applying embellishments to obscure points of imitation and repeated sections of the vocal model. The lack of concern for bringing out the structure of the model and the freedom with which ornaments were applied shows how mid-century lutenists prized variety more than structural clarity. In the intabulations of Francesco da Milano and Francesco Spinacino, original vocal models are transformed into idiomatic pieces through a more motivic use of graces and through recomposition of certain passages. While the practice of free embellishment through idiomatic figuration continued throughout the sixteenth century as a special technique of virtuoso soloists, the systematic exploitation of stereotyped graces led to diverse figuration patterns and a rich network of motives used in intabulations as well as variation sets in the second half of the century.

    In his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin, 1753), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) writes:

    It is not likely that anybody could question the necessity of ornaments. They are found everywhere in music, and are not only useful, but indispensable. They connect the notes; they give them life. They emphasise them, and besides giving accent and meaning they render them grateful; they illustrate the sentiments, be they sad or merry, and take an important part in the general effect. They give to the player an opportunity to show off his technical skill and powers of expression. A mediocre composition can be made attractive by their aid, and the best melody without them may seem obscure and meaningless.

    Starting with Chambonnières' print of 1670, almost all French composers included tables of ornaments in their printed editions, to illustrate 'the manner of playing.' Jean-Henri d'Anglebert (1635-1691) included a very thorough table of ornaments, perhaps the most complete of all. His symbols and types of ornaments provide both melodic embellishments and elaborate chordal figurations. D'Anglebert's system, like all French ornament systems, is combinatorial: a small number of simple gestures can be combined in a multitude of ways to produce a very rich set of ornamental figures. Since D'Anglebert uses exactly the same set of ornaments in one of his figured-bass examples, his entire oeuvre is a rich source of ideas for accompaniment in the French style. His table served as the basis for many similar tables published later. Monsieur de Saint Lambert makes frequent reference to it in his influential Les principes du clavecin of 1702; and J. S. Bach, C.P.E.'s father, used it as the basis for the ornament table he provided for Wilhelm Friedemann's Clavier-Büchlein in 1720, which is applicable to much of his, that is J.S.'s own music.


  • Music Manuscript Notation in Bach

    C. P. E. Bach wrote his father's obituary:

    While a student in Lüneburg, my father had the opportunity to listen to a band kept by the Duke of Celle, consisting for the most part of Frenchmen; thus he acquired a thorough grounding in the French taste, which in those regions was something quite new...

    Claudia Kollbach, writing about the epistolary skills and princely children in 18th century German courts, observes that:

    Mastery of the French language was very important and nobles were already trained in using French at a very early age ... (it was, in Germany, a means) by which nobles aimed at distinguishing themselves from other classes.

    Indeed, the infatuation of German courts with the French style provoked Christian Thomasius, in his Von Nachahmung der Französen (1687), to observe that:

    French clothes, French food, French furniture, French customs, French sins, French illnesses are generally in vogue.

    The cosmopolitan nature of German musical life was so extraordinary that in his memorandum of August 1730, to the Leipzig town council, Johann Sebastian Bach comments:

    It is, anyhow, somewhat strange that German musicians are expected to be capable of performing at once and ex tempore all kinds of music, whether it come from Italy or France, English or Poland

    while Georg Muffat, in his dedication to his Florilegium primum (1695) acknowledged that:

    I dare not employ only a single style or method, but rather the most skilful mixture of styles I can manage through my experience in various countries ... As I mix the French manner with the German and Italian, I do not begin a war, but perhaps rather a prelude to the unity, the dear peace, desired by all the peoples

    So today, using an 'historically informed' approach, one's application of the correct style of ornamentation to a particular piece of music requires an appreciation of the subtleties involved when considering what was appropriate at the time the work was composed and performed including where a German composer might want to create something 'French', or a Frenchman something 'Italian'.

    The problem, for today's performer, is that ornamentation is one of those elements that varies from period to period and from country to country. In addition to what was marked in the score, additional runs and divisions, called passeggi (Italian), Passagen (German) or roulades (French), were inserted at the whim of the performer. and as Tosi, writing in about 1653, shows, things could get out of hand.

    The Presumption of some Singers is not to be borne with, who expect that an whole Orchestre should stop in the midst of a well-regulated Movement, to wait for their ill-grounded Caprices, learned by Heart, carried from one Theatre to another, and perhaps stolen from some applauded female Singer, who had better Luck than Skill, and whose errors were excused in regard to her Sex.

    Johann David Heinichen explained, in 1728, that overcoming the trouble, danger and expense of foreign travel allowed one to gain a sense of good taste, the chief key to unlocking and moving the human soul. Many writers emphasise the importance of good taste, but what did it mean to them?

    In his Dictionnaire de Musique (1768) Rousseau writes:

    Of all natural gifts, goût ["taste"] is the one that makes itself most felt and that is the hardest to explain. It would not be what it is if it could be defined, for it judges objects that the judgment can no longer weigh and, if I dare draw such a simile, is the reading glasses of reason. Among melodies, some songs are more agreeable than others, although all are equally well modulated. In harmony, some things impress, others do not, although all are equally correct. Weaving the pieces together is a fine art that involves using some pieces to make the others stand out, that involves something more refined than the law of contrasts. In performing a given piece there are different ways it can be interpreted, without at any time diverging from the character of the piece. Some of these ways are more pleasing than others; and far from being able to explain this by rules, one cannot even define them.

    Reader, if you can explain these differences to me, I will be able to tell you what goût is. Every man has his individual taste, by means of which he arranges in his own way the things he considers beautiful and good. One person is more moved by pieces that are pathétique, another prefers tunes that are gai. A voice that is douce and supple will decorate its songs with ornaments that are agréable; a voice that is emotional and strong will animate its songs with intonations that convey passion. One person seeks simplicity in a melody, another values artful virtuoso passages; both of them will call their chosen goût "elegance," Sometimes this diversity stems from the differences between their organs, which their taste is striving to use to advantage; sometimes it comes from the individual character of each man, which makes him more sensitive to one pleasure or failing than to another; sometimes it comes from differences in age or sex, which focus their desires on different objects.

    In each of these instances, since each person has only his own taste to compare with the taste of others, it is obvious that the questions should not be debated. But there is also a general taste about which all well constituted people agree. And it is to this alone that the name goût can unqualifiably be given. If men who are sufficiently educated and whose ears are sufficiently trained, listen to a concert, most of them usually will agree in their judgment of the pieces and about the order in which they would rate them. Ask each one the reasons behind his judgment, and they will be almost unanimous about some things, that is, about things that happen to involve rules. And this common judgment is the artist's or connoisseur's judgment. But among those things that they agree are good or bad, are some for which they can give no reasons to support their judgment. This sort of judgment is possessed by the man who has goût. If there is not perfect unanimity, it is because these people are not all equally well constituted, because they are not all people with goût, and because as a result of arbitrary conventions, prejudices shaped by habit or education often change the ranking of naturally beautiful things.

    This sort of taste can be debated, for there is another way to end the argument besides counting votes when you don't even agree about what Nature is telling you. This should, however, be the basis upon which French or Italian music is to be preferred. Moreover, genius creates but taste chooses: and someone with overly abundant genius often needs a severe censor who prevents him from misusing his riches. Without taste one can do great things; but taste is what makes them interesting. It is taste that causes a composer to grasp the poet's ideas; it is taste that makes the performer grasp the composer's ideas; it is taste that gives them both what they need to ornament and make the most of their subject; and it is taste that gives the listener the feeling of how all these fit together.

    Yet taste is not sensitivity. A person whose soul is cold can have a great deal of taste, and another who gets caught up by truly emotional things may not be very moved by things that are gracieux. It seems that taste most appropriately applies to minor expressions [of feeling] and sensitivity to major ones.

    Armed with some understanding of what 'good taste' was, and having studied evidence from the period, we might now attempt to ornament a musical line. But we soon discover that, while some composers would have expected this, others, and François Couperin must be counted among them, expected the performer closely to observe what had been written.

    I am always astonished, after the pains I have taken to indicate the appropriate ornaments for my pieces, to hear people who have learnt them without heeding my instructions. Such negligence is unpardonable, the more so as it is no arbitrary matter to put in any ornament one wishes. I therefore declare that my pieces must be performed just as I have marked them, and that they will never make much of an impression on people of real discernment if all that I have indicated is not obeyed to the letter, without adding or taking away anything.

    François Couperin - preface to Book II of Pièces de Clavecin

    The Leipzig-born composer Johann Adolf Scheibe (1708-1776), writing in 1737, noted that J. S. Bach was:

    "wont to express completely in notes ... every ornament, every little grace, and everything that one thinks of as belonging to the method of playing."

    a comment we may contrast with an observation made 35 years later by Laurent de Garcins (or Desgarcins), a partisan of the new Parisian opéra comique and author of Traité du mélo-drame (Paris, 1772):

    In arias of a cantabile genre, the Italians have granted their singers great liberties. These type of aria are composed with few notes, sufficient only to maintain the melody. The singer may fill them up as he pleases, and sprinkle there all the ornaments of his art.

    Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (1732-1817) expressed a contrary opinion:

    We cannot conceive why the composer himself does not take care to write small notes suited to the expression of the words, and the air. If they are necessary, it should not be left to singers either to neglect or execute, much less should they be permitted to disfigure or alter the true character of the air, by useless or commonplace ornaments. It is only in bravura airs, destined to show off the voice, that singers should be permitted to use their own discretion in the selection of embellishments.

    In an article of the same period, attributed to the composer Johann Schulz (1747-1800), we learn that the Italian composer Agostino Staffani (1654-1728) 'absolutely would not permit a singer to add a note to his own.'

    In 1813, Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) was given the libretto of Aureliano in Palmira (1813) to set for La Scala, and he was required, against all the custom of the time, to set the role of Arsace for the castrato singer Giovanni Battista Velluti (1780-1861), known colloquially as Giambattista. It was an experience Rossini came to regret, since Velluti, exercising the traditional freedom of his predecessors, insisted on providing his own ornaments and embellishments to the composer's score. Rossini was furious, and he never again allowed a singer to improvise on his work: what ornamentation was needed he wrote into the score himself. It wasn't that he was against the use of ornamentation - he frequently devised them for his favourite singers, and not just for his own operas but quite often for those of other composers too! Where his own operas were concerned, though, he was determined to keep control.

    Even in the twentieth century, when composers notate their intentions even more clearly and a Ravel can say: "I want no interpretation, it is enough to play what is written", composers may be present at the rehearsals and expect performers to have something of their own to say. Indeed as a member of an audience, we might attend a concert as much to listen to the performer's interpretation as to hear the notes the composer wrote.

    Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) shows an awareness of this in a letter, dated 8 July 1799, written to Marie-Joseph Blaise de Chénier (1764-1811):

    The composer achieves nothing without executants: these must be well-disposed towards the author, then they must feel in their hearts all that he has notated; they must come together, rehearse, investigate, finally study the mind of the author, then execute his works. In this way they almost succeed in stealing the applause from the composer, or at least in sharing the glory with him, for while it is pleasing to hear people say, "What a beautiful work this is!" it seems to me even more so to hear them add, "Oh, how angelically they have executed it!"

    One of the world's master cellists, Brazilian-born Aldo Parisot, in an interview with Tim Janof, gives us an insight into this complicated relationship.

    When a composer creates a masterpiece, my job is not to recreate it; it's to try to create another masterpiece even greater than what the composer wrote. I experienced this many times when working with contemporary composers. For example, in 1959 I was asked to play the Hindemith Concerto in Carnegie Hall with Hindemith conducting the New York Philharmonic. I knew how dogmatic Hindemith could be so I made sure that I followed his score to the letter, including his metronome indications. When I was ready my manager told me that Hindemith wanted to hear me play his concerto well before the concert. So I went to Hindemith's hotel room in New York and knocked on the door. When he opened the door I could tell by his expression that he remembered our fight back at Yale. Then he invited me in and said, "Parisot, play my concerto." I then played the whole concerto, facing him while he conducted. When we finished, he kept his head down, still looking at the score. I waited a bit too long, and finally asked, "Mr. Hindemith, what did you think?" He said, "Parisot, you play my concerto very well. You even respect the fingerings and bowings of my brother, who was a cellist. But I'd like to ask you one question. Is that the way you feel my music?"

    I replied, "Not at all! I was just trying to obey what you wrote."

    He said, "Okay, we still have ten days. Why don't you come back in a few days and play it the way you really want to?" I couldn't believe my ears! Fortunately, I had the habit of learning a piece in three or four different ways, so I didn't panic. A few days later I returned and this time I turned away from him, letting him follow me this time, and I played the concerto how I really wanted to. I put in a rubato here and there, took a little more time in other places, and when I finished, he said, "Bravo, Parisot!"

    So what I'm saying is that the written notes are just the beginning, because it's impossible to transmit one's artistic vision and feelings to another human being through notes on a page, or even person-to-person.

    Further consideration of the relationship between composers and the performers of their works can be found in Charles Rosen's review of Robert Philip's book 'Performing Music in the Age of Recording' published in the New York Review of Books, while László Somfai's article 'Bartók's Great Crescendos - Some Observations for Young Musicians' raises some points about what we might learn from a composer's autograph sketches, drafts and scores. The Japanese pianist Takahiro Sonoda considers the problems when working from Urtext while a number of commentators including Bradley Lehman (under the heading NBA Urtext, and reference materials in general) have some interesting things to say about Urtext and Bach's cantatas.


  • Playing Music: The Lost Freedom by Charles Rosen
  • Bartók's Great Crescendos: Some Observations for Young Musicians by László Somfai
  • About Urtext Scores by Takahiro Sonoda
  • Scores of Bach Cantatas: Part 2

    Ornamentation, then, has to be treated as part of a wider field called interpretation which will include matters such as tempo, rhythm, instrumentation and, of course, style. It might involve some understanding of the role of music and musicians in society when the music was originally written, as well as considering evidence that may have survived about original performances, including the expectations of the composer, performer and audience at that particular period and in that place, as far as we can understand them.

    Zygmunt Stojowski, in his article The Evolution of Style and Interpretation In Piano Literature, writes:

    "Each composer is born into a given time and place, into a period of history with its social, economic and political conditions that affect him and his output; with a set of tools evolved and sanctioned by tradition to which his own needs may add new ones. Human personality is bound to reflect the genius loci (Spirit of Place), a native soil and given environment. There is, accordingly, a particular mental attitude to grasp, a milieu to know, a technique to master. The historical sense steps in, and the presence of a fourth element in the cooperative effort of our three parties, make itself felt: our instrument viewed in evolutionary perspective."

    In the introduction to Music as History by Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell, the authors write:

    The perceptive musical mind has indeed emerged as a necessary adjunct to mere technique and artistry. According to one of his pupils, the great pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch once characteristically remarked that he wanted his students to learn principles rather than pieces, so that they could do their own thinking. A similar approach resurfaces in Gustav Leonhardt's recent observation: When one is a student one does things consciously, but when one is more experienced one does not play intellectually any more. One doesn't think; one has thought . . . things are done automatically, depending on what you intend to say. Other commentators have pointed to the importance of a certain attitude of mind rather than adherence to a set of techniques applied to an arbitrarily delimited body of early music. The real issue is a comprehensive theory of performance covering music from the earliest times we care about up to the present.

    In dealing with the questions raised in this chapter, we must understand what part ornamentation plays in enhancing rhythm, harmony and melody. Ornamentation is more like the fruit in a fruit cake than the icing on top of it. Take off the icing and you still have a fruit cake - remove the fruit, and you have not.

    Thanks to books by Dolmetsch, Donington (The Interpretation of Early Music; pub. Faber - rev. version 1974) and others, as well as the labours of good editors, we have modern editions in which the original ornamentation is clearly marked and fully explained and additions are indicated as suggestions. Our problem can often be reduced to reading the symbols on the score and applying them correctly during the performance.

    For this reason, we try to keep this discussion of ornamentation at a basic level. For those interested in a deeper understanding we recommend the reader turns to the fascinating books by Arnold Dolmetsch and by Dolmetsch's student, Robert Donington, or to the many other excellent surveys of this field.


  • Baroque Ornamentation by Ronald Roseman
  • Ornamentation in Giuseppe Tartini’s Traité des Agréments by Connie Sunday
  • Early Baroque Violin Practice (1520-1650) by Connie Sunday
  • Baroque Ornamentation: An Introduction by Rebecca Schalk Nagel
  • Ornamentation in the Bassoon Music of Vivaldi and Mozart by David J. Ross
  • Baroque Vocal Ornamentation - The Elaborate Pearls of the Voice
  • Improvised Ornamentation in Solo Instrumental Literature of the German Late Baroque by Eugenia Earle
  • The Music of the Sean-Nós by Tomás Ó Canainn
  • The Sound of Medieval Song: Ornamentation and Vocal Style According to the Treatises by Timothy J. McGee
  • Ornamentation in Spanish Music of the 17th Century by Dr. Esther Morales Cañadas
  • Baroque Ornaments
  • Italian Baroque Ornamentation - a pdf format file
  • Apollo Brass Guide to Renaissance Ornamentation compiled and edited by Brian Kay
  • Bach's ornamentation table by Aileen McCallum
  • Ornamentation in South Indian Music and the Violin by Gordon N. Swift
  • Bach's Unaccompanied String Music: A New (Old) Approach to Stylistic and Idiomatic Transcription for the Guitar by Stanley Yates
  • Poetry and Music
  • Music of the Baroque Era - with reference to baroque opera
  • Ornamentation in Persian Classical Music
  • Ornamentation in Indian Classical Music
  • Early European Music
  • Ornamentation in Kabuki
  • Learning to Play Irish Flute - including books on ornamentation
  • Spur of the Moment - from
  • Ornamention and American Indian Courting Flute
  • Capering to the lascivious lute: the delights of Authenticity by Peter Hoar
  • How composers viewed performer's additions by Beverly Jerold (Early Music Vol. XXXVI no. 1)

  • Accidentals and Ornamentation :: top

    Key word:

    Accidentals and Ornamentation

    Before we examine each ornament in detail we should consider an important question. Of which notes are ornaments generally formed. If, in an eighteenth-century work, a trill mark is placed over, say, an A and one is to follow the standard eighteenth-century convention of beginning the trill on an auxiliary one note above the written note, will that initial auxiliary be a B sharp, a B natural or a B flat?

    The general rule is that, in the absence of any accidental above or below the ornament sign, all the auxiliary notes in the ornament should be taken from the major key appropriate to the key signature. So using the example above, if the key signature of the piece is G major (one sharp), the trill will begin on an B natural. However, if the key signature of the piece is F major (one flat), the trill will begin on a B flat.

    However, if any of the auxiliary notes in an ornament include accidentals, for example a C sharp in the key of G major, this will be shown by writing an accidental, in this case a sharp sign, above or below the ornament sign. In the case of an F natural in the key of G major, the appropriate sign would be a natural.

    The convention is that if the inflection applies to a note lying above the principal note then the accidental is written above the sign for the ornament, but if the inflected auxiliary note lies below the principal note, the accidental sign is placed below the sign for the ornament. (The example below comes from the second movement of Chopin's Nocture in E flat major Op. 9 : for a performance go here: Chopin Nocturne in E-flat Op.9 no.2 - Joaquin Achucarro)

    Obviously, if the principal note is itself inflected then the accidental is placed to the immediate left of the principal note head and not with the sign for the ornament.

    Note however, that although the inflection persists for any repeat in the ornamental figure of the principal note in the same bar, all the other auxiliary note or notes continue to be drawn from the major key of the key signature unless accidentals are placed above or below the ornament sign.

    Grace Notes :: top

    Key words:
    grace note

    Grace Notes

    acciaccatura sign petites notes (French), kürzer Vorschläge (German), appoggiature (Italian)

    In the seventeenth century the word 'grace' was applied to a number of 'ornaments' including the appoggiatura (from an Italian word meaning 'to lean') and the acciaccatura (from an Italian verb acciaccare meaning 'to crush'). The acciaccatura is very short (literally 'crushed'), is played on the beat together with, or imperceptably before, the principal note before being released. It is generally, although not always, written as a small quaver (eighth note) with a stroke through its stem and lies in front of the principal note. The appoggiatura is usually written without a stroke through the note's stem. In both cases, the notation of the grace note is symbolic - the grace note (with or without a stroke through its stem) is not included in the time value count for the bar.

    As a form of appoggiatura, the 'grace note' is played either just before the beat resolving speedily to the principal note which is itself on the beat (indeed, sometime in the nineteenth century, this form was referred to as a durchgehender Vorschlag), or is played on the beat but resolves speedily to the principal note which is accented. This is an example of a very short appoggiatura, called in German kurzer Vorschlag. In all cases the 'grace note' is short.

    We give three examples below.

    Some authors include a number of other note patterns under the heading of grace notes; for instance, a sequence of two or more notes played very quickly as a link from one principal note to the next. Apart from the requirement to play them as quickly as possible, there was no 'hard and fast' rule as to whether these 'passing' grace note sequences were to be played on or before the beat. Sometimes composers make their intentions clear with written instructions or supplementary marks (this is particularly true once we start looking at music of the twentieth century) but the performer should be aware that in any area 'taste' is as good a guide as 'evidence'.

    Georg Muffat, a German who had been one of Lully's musicians, insisted on the "importance of using with good judgment of the nice manners and proper grace notes which make the harmony brilliant as so many precious stones ... (and) that from them depends a peculiar sweetness, vigour and beauty." After which he tells about the current mistakes, which are the omission, the impropriety, the excess and the unskillfulness, adding, "for which one ought to be so assiduous in the making of these precious ornaments of music."

    Mozart would often write an acciaccatura when he wanted a normal, as opposed to a very short appoggiatura.

    Before the nineteenth century, there was considerable freedom in how these matters could be notated or, in practice, how the performer might realise them. Many composers supplemented editions of their music with a 'table of ornaments' but this might only be applicable to that particular edition. In eighteenth-century France, the composers were invariably brilliant performers and the pieces were expected to display this. The decoration that a performer applied freely in performance could be very difficult to notate accurately on the page.

    Appoggiaturas :: top

    Key word:
    double appoggiatura


    Single appoggiatura

    written appoggiatura ports de voix or notes d'agrément (French), langer Vorschläge or veränderlicher Vorschläge (German), appoggiature (Italian), apoyadura or apoyatura (Spanish)

    The variable or long appoggiatura was widely used in 'early music'. We have met the very short form (which can be distinguished by a stroke through the note's flag) when discussing grace notes above. In this section, we concentrate on the rules, set out by C.P.E. Bach, which cover the majority of occasions when the variable or long appoggiatura is required

  • the appoggiatura is often written symbolically as a small note (see above);
  • when written using a small note, the small note's time value is ignored when summing the time values of the larger notes in the bar;
  • the appoggiatura lies to the left of, and is shown slurred to the principal note;
  • the appoggiatura is always played on the beat - the principal note follows;
  • the duration of the appoggiatura in performance is determined by the note value of the principal note;
  • for an undotted principal note, the appoggiatura, as performed, takes half its value - the principal takes the remainder;
  • for a dotted principal note, the appoggiatura, as performed, takes two thirds its value - the principal takes the remainder;
  • the appoggiatura often formalises the practice of 'freely filling-in thirds' in melodic lines;
  • the partition rule for appoggiaturas may occasionally change as rhythmic or harmonic considerations indicate;
  • the appoggiatura may ascend (move from the note below the principal note, as, for example, in the port de voix) or descend (move from the note above the principal note) depending on the ornamental sign.

    We give below two examples of the standard appoggiatura.

    It is common to see a small slur linking the appoggiatura symbol to the principal note that follows it. Whether or not one actually slurs the two notes in performance is determined by the style you want. In other words, the slur is symbolic and not mandatory.

    In his treatise Versuch einer Anweisung, die Flöte traversière zu spielen (1751), Quantz wrote:

    Short appoggiaturas .. must be touched very briefly and softly, as though, so to speak, only in passing .. those must not be held, especially in a slow tempo; otherwise they will sound as if they are expressed with regular notes .. This, however, would be contrary not only to the intention of the composer, but to the French style of playing, to which these appoggiaturas owe their origin. The little notes belong in the time of the notes preceding them, and hence must not, as in the second example, fall in the time of those that follow them.

    Edward Randolph Reilly (1929-2004), the American translator of the English version of Quantz's treatise, concludes that Quantz's statement regarding the French style of playing to which these appoggiaturas owe their origin strongly suggests that pre-beat placement in this rhythmic figure was not uncommon, at least in the school of eighteenth-century flute performance:

    Judging from Quantz's insistence that the performance of passing appoggiaturas in the time of the preceding note is part of the French style of playing, he probably heard them performed in that manner, at least by flute players, during his visits to Paris in 1726 and 1727. Furthermore, recall C.P.E. Bach's own admission that his on-beat rule was frequently ignored by performers of his day when he declares, "This observation (i.e., on-beat placement) grows in importance the more it is neglected".

    Willard Palmer in Chopin: An Introduction to His Piano works writes:

    Almost all appoggiaturas in Chopin's music are played on the beat, and the time values given the small notes are subtracted from the large note that immediately follows. This is in accordance with the instructions of J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Leopold Mozart and Muzio Clementi.

    By the mid-19th century, it appears that appoggiaturas coming before the beat is the rule rather than the exception. (see: Appoggiatura of the Nineteenth Century)

    In the music of Mozart, the appoggiatura takes on the role of a musical 'sigh'. This is examined further in Mozart's musical language in The Marriage of Figaro.

    Double Appoggiatura

    apoyatura doble (Spanish), appoggiatura doppia (Italian), appoggiature double (French), doppelter Vorschlag (German), Doppelvorschlag (German)
    the term can have three distinct meanings:
    double appoggiatura

    where two notes of a chord, that are initially dissonant, both resolve by step, in other words, two simultaneous appoggiaturas. The best example of a double appoggiatura is the cadential six-four. Unlike accented and unaccented passing notes, the appoggiatura is not approached by step, but by leap. Although it still resolves by step, the dissonance is more prominent as a result (see example above);

    a coulé, slide or conjunct double appoggiatura, an ornament consisting of two short notes rising by step to the main note. It may be indicated by a sign or by small notes;
    the Anschlag or disjunct double appoggiatura, so-called from the last half of the eighteenth century, C P. E. Bach's name for a pair of grace notes, the first of which is to be played on the beat and may be any distance from the principal note but second of which is only one degree removed from it.


    Appoggiatura of the Nineteenth Century

    For a more detailed examination of the notation of the appoggiatura in the nineteenth century, please refer to the three examples below.

    19th century appoggiatura

    Note that the second example illustrates that the appoggiatura and acciaccatura symbols were often interchanged in meaning.

    This reference is taken from Ornamentation Practice of Late 19th and Early 20th-Century Brass Performance by Dr. Jeffrey Cottrell (reference title has been abbreviated). Dr. Cottrell identifies the first as being similar to the eighteenth-century form but the second and third are quite unlike anything seen in earlier times. We commend Dr. Jeffrey's article where these matters are discussed more fully.


  • Ornamentation Practice of Late 19th and Early 20th-Century Brass Performance by Dr. Jeffrey Cottrell (reference title has been abbreviated)

  • Nachslag :: top

    Key word:


    passing appoggiatura There is one exception to the rule that the appoggiatura is always placed on the beat, and that is the passing appoggiatura or Nachslag. When a passage descending by thirds contains appoggiatura signs (hooks or small notes), the appoggiaturas may be used to fill in the interval of the third. According to the context, the appoggiatura may be placed to produce a run of notes of equal time value, see example (1) below, or kept close to the principal note (that is played quickly), see example (2) below.

    Nachslag example

    Although C.P.E. Bach did not favour the Nachslag, other writers, including Quantz, disagreed with him and explained them to their readers in some detail.

    Turns :: top

    Key word:


    turn sign brisé, groupe, doublé (French), Doppelschlag (German), gruppetto (Italian)

    The general shape of the turn is a sequence of four notes, the note above, the note itself, the note below, then the note itself again.

    However, see also accidentals and ornamentation

    The two examples below are a good guide to how the turn is normally played. The rhythmic shape of the sequence, whether all the notes have the same time value or some are extended or shortened, and its overall duration depends on the context in which the ornament is being used. See various examples below:

    The second two examples are drawn from ITEA Journal Volume 32 Number 1 Fall 2004, and particularly an article entitled I.H. Odell's 1899 The Imperial Method for the Cornet: an Examination in Regard to Ornamentation Practice of Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Brass Performance By Dr. Jeffrey Cottrell. Cottrell's comments are particularly useful because they compare and contrast the notation of ornaments in the late nineteenth century with that several centuries earlier. In particular, the two examples immediately above are termed 'direct turn' (on the left) and 'full turn' or gruppetto (on the right) respectively. This terminology is not found earlier than the late nineteenth century.

    In his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Berlin, 1753), C.P.E. Bach spends twelve pages discussing the turn, and gives seventy examples not included in those twelve pages. Suffice it to say, this is a 'free' ornament; the shape of the note sequence is followed, but all else is up to the performer and the occasion.


    Inverted Turn, Vertical Turn & Half Mordent

    inverted turn sign Inverted Turn

    The turn may be inverted as in the preparation of an ascending trill when the note sequence becomes the note below, the note itself, the note above, then the note itself again.

    However, see also accidentals and ornamentation

    vertical turn symbolVertical Turn

    Bach sometimes wrote his turn signs vertically and this symbol is found in some editions of his work.

    The vertical turn sign appears also in 'I.H. Odell’s 1899 The Imperial Method for the Cornet' (see reference above) where is it called an 'inverted turn' and is described thus:

    inverted turn (19th century)

    Note that this nineteenth-century ornament should not be confused with the inverted turn described earlier.

    turn symbol with  a line through itHalf-mordent

    The 'turn-with-a-line-through-it' is a mystery ornament that occurs in Haydn's piano music, which he called a "half mordent" but for which he offered no explanation as to how it should be played. The confusion is made greater by the fact that his use of the symbol was inconsistent. In similar places he sometimes substitutes the normal turn as a symbol or even writes the turn out. Today, pianists play a normal turn or a mordent since, in his use of the ornament, it is generally indistinguishable from a mordent. This strange ornament is discussed in the preface to the Weiner Urtext Edition of Haydn's Piano Sonatas. Sonja Gerlach, in the Preface to the Henle edition of the Violoncello Concerto in D major (Hob. V11b:2), writes "Haydn’s “half mordent” Q should usually be regarded as a quick turn performed on the beat, though it may also be intended as an inverted mordent.

    However, see also accidentals and ornamentation


  • Ornamentation Practice of Late 19th and Early 20th-Century Brass Performance by Dr. Jeffrey Cottrell (reference title has been abbreviated)

  • Trills :: top

    Key word:
    vocal trill


    various trill symbols tremblement (French), Triller (German), trillo (Italian) , trino (Spanish)

    Fewer ornaments give performers more problems than trills.
    Maybe this is because there are many different kinds of trill, each right for a particular situation

    A trill may have anything up to three parts: a preparation (sometime called a prefix), a shake and a termination.

  • the preparation may be a long or short appoggiatura which is always played on the beat;
  • ascending trill sign if the preparation consists of two notes ascending stepwise to the written note, or the trill is marked with either of the signs shown to the left, the first of the two notes in placed on the beat, the two notes and those of the trill have the same time value, and the trill is called an ascending trill;
  • descending trill sign if the preparation consists of two notes descending stepwise to the written note, or the trill is marked with either of the signs shown to the left, the first of the two notes in placed on the beat, the two notes and those of the trill have the same time value, and the trill is called a descending trill;
  • in early music, the appoggiatura is always the note above the written note (in which case it is called the auxiliary note);
  • in modern music, the appoggiatura is generally the written note (called the principal note);
  • a short appoggiatura is as long as the individual notes in the shake, in which case the shake is often said to be unprepared;
  • a long appoggiatura is one half of an undotted principal, two thirds of a dotted principal, in which case the shake is often said to be prepared;
  • the appoggiatura is slurred to the shake which follows;
  • the preparation may be a normal or inverted turn played at the same note speed as those of the shake, for example, in a descending or ascending trill;
  • the shake begins on the note above the written note and finishes on the written note;
  • if a ,oris placed above the trill symbol, this indicates a chromatic inflection of the auxiliary note
  • the notes of a shake should be as short as is comfortable for the player;
  • if the termination is a turn, it is slurred to the shake;
  • if the termination is a single note, it is separated from the shake;
  • cadential trills, those at the end of sections, normally have long appoggiaturas;
  • see also accidentals and ornamentation.

    In the context of trills, some theory books mention the term after-beat, and define it as being the ending of a trill which consists of the lower auxiliary and the principal note. In such cases, the discussion is about a modern trill, one that starts on the principal note and where the auxiliary note is lower than the principal note.

    The trill may be reduced to a shake alone or it may have no termination. We give some examples below.

    Very rarely, the appoggiatura of a trill is actually written into the melodic line as a separate note (as, for example, in the Pralltriller - see section below). This becomes clear when one examines the harmonic progression in the accompanying parts. If the harmony indicates that the previous note, although the same pitch as the appoggiatura, is not the appoggiatura of the trill following, then the player has to repeat the note when playing the appoggiatura to avoid starting the trill on the wrong note. We give such an example below in which the second line is what is written, the top line is what is understood by what is written and the third line is what is actually played

    The examples discussed above, illustrate a point raised by Tony Pay, performer on early clarinets, who, writing on The Clarinet BBoard, explains:

    ... knowing the different possibilities offered by trills/shakes does make a difference; for example, realising that some trills/shakes are 'prepared' (usually for harmonic reasons) and others 'unprepared' (for usually melodic reasons) is an important musical insight that impacts performance -- and more importantly, impacts the EFFECTIVENESS of performance.

    The relationship between the form of a particular trill and the harmony that supports it is mentioned by the reviewer of Jerome Carrington's Trills in the Bach Cello Suites published in Early Music Review No. 130 May 2009. We summarise the reviewer comments:

    in most cases, deciding whether a trill starts on the beat or on a note above depends on [the harmony]. The majority of trills (whether notated or not) are on the first note of a dominant/tonic cadence. Unless you are playing the bass, adding them (trills) should become second nature ... If, in the normal 4 3 harmony of the cadence, the 4 is already written out, the trill on the 3 starts on the beat. If the 4 is not notated, then [the player] has to decide how long the 4 lasts before he trills.

    The instrumental trill, which is what we have discussed above, should not be confused with the vocal trill which, even during the period we are considering here, was an altogether more ornate 'creature'. Neil Howlett, in his excellent article The Trill (from which we have quoted), tells us that:

    "within thirty years of the first opera in 1600, the study and practice of the trill, both as a vocal ornament and a measure of expertise, had reached its apogee in the achievement of Baldassare Ferri (1610-1680). He would have completed his studies as a castrato singer by 1630, and his legacy to us is the performance of a two octave chromatic scale in trills both up and down and in one breath: a technical tour de force which has undoubtedly neither been surpassed nor equalled since. Regular study of the trill renders the voice supple and the throat strong; it makes possible many different vocal ornaments; evens the voice from top to bottom and by so doing facilitates all other agility; it enables the singer to encompass repertoire from 1650–1900, for which the trill is an essential requirement."

    The vocal trill is derived from the trillo which before about 1680 indicated another vocal ornament: accelerating pulsations of breath on a single note. When this decoration became old fashioned and fell into disuse, it seems that the term was reapplied to increasing reverberations of two adjacent notes instead. The English word for the trill in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was the very descriptive ‘shake’. For the singer, his or her crowning glory was the ribattuta, a steadily accelerating shake between two notes either a semitone or a tone apart performed using the method called a laryngeal shake.

    When did the convention change to starting the trill on the lower note? Here is a recent summary about this written by Clive Brown: [Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2004, acc. 11/29/04]

    The elaborate systems of ornament signs developed by eighteenth-century keyboard players was not widely adopted, even in keyboard music, during the Classical period. For other instruments composers rarely employed anything but tr, the mordent sign and various forms of turn sign....The sign tr usually indicated a trill with a number of repetitions of the upper auxiliary, while the mordent sign indicated only one or two repetitions (depending whether it began with the auxiliary); however, each of these signs was sometimes used with the meaning usually applicable to the other. The various forms of turn sign cannot reliably be related to particular melodic and rhythmic patterns; sometimes they too could be synonymous with tr, and in manuscript sources the distinction between [various examples given] is often unclear.

    During the nineteenth century, as composers became concerned to take greater control of their music, they increasingly wrote out ornaments in full. The progression is neatly illustrated by Wagner's turns: up until Lohengrin he used signs, but in Tristan and his later operas he always incorporated the turns into the notation. Inverted mordents were often indicated either by small notes or in normal notation, and even trills were sometimes fully notated, for instance by Dvorak (op. 106) and Tchaikovsky (opp. 64 and 74). Considerable controversy has been generated by the question of how trills in music from the period 1750 to 1900 should begin. Scholarship has clearly shown that, although the upper-note start was never quite as self-evident as advocates such as C.P.E. Bach implied, it was undoubtedly the dominant practice in the mid-eighteenth century.

    When and where a general preference for a main-note start began to emerge remains uncertain. Moser identified the strongest support for the upper-note start as being in north Germany; he asserted, however, that in Mannheim, the trill was to begin from above only if specifically notated, and that C.P.E. Bach's authority was countered by 'the powerful influences which stemmed from the Viennese masters of instrumental music' (Violinschule, iii, 19-20). What evidence Moser may have possessed for this statement, other than received tradition by way of Joachim, remains unclear. Certainly, a considerable number of the trills on the musical clocks from the 1790s containing Haydn's Flötenuhrstücke begin on the main note, but there is no consistency and no connection with Haydn's notation. Arguments for and against Mozart's preference have been advanced, and the matter has been exhaustively examined by Neumann. For Beethoven, too, the evidence is largely circumstantial.

    In 1828, however, Hummel published his unambiguous opinion that a main-note start should be the norm, and Spohr followed suit a few years later. Baillot offered four different beginnings without recommending the primacy of any. Some nineteenth-century composers took trouble to indicate the beginnings of trills, particularly to show a start from below, and their manner of doing this was used by Franklin Taylor in 1879 as evidence for their normal practice. It seems probable that among major nineteenth-century composers Weber, Chopin and Mendelssohn generally favoured an upper-note start. In this as in other aspects of performance, however, dogmatism and rigidity are undoubtedly out of place.


    The term 'trill' is also used in phonetics. A phonetic trill is a consonant produced with one articulator held close to another so that a flow of air sets up a regular vibration. E.g. the 'rr' of Spanish burro, meaning 'donkey', is a lingual trill, with vibration of the tip of the tongue, or specifically a dental trill, articulated in the dental position of articulation. Uvular trills, with vibration of the uvula against the back of the tongue, are possible, though not usual, for example the 'r' in French. In such cases the pitch of the sound is constant, unlike the trill in music.


  • Trills - This advice on trilling is WRONG - trilling from the written note is only generally correct in music written after the late-1700s
  • The Story of a Trill
  • The Trill by Neil Howlett

  • Pralltriller :: top

    Key word:


    pralltriller Also called the 'half trill', the Pralltriller is discussed by C.P.E. Bach, by J.F. Agricola (one of J.S. Bach's students), and by F.W. Marpurg, in his book on clavier playing. It may occur only after a descending second. The note that is ornamented with the trill must be preceded by the note one diatonic step higher. The Pralltriller is played like an extremely rapid trill. It contains only four notes, the first of which is tied to the preceding note. C.P.E. Bach says that it "joins the preceding note to the decorated one, and therefore never appears over detached notes." From the mid eighteenth century, the Schneller, the inverted mordent, gradually replaced the Pralltriller

    example of pralltriller

    Mordents :: top

    Key words:
    inverted mordent
    upper mordent
    lower mordent
    long mordent
    double mordent


    mordent sign mordant, pincé (French), Mordent (German), mordente (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese)

    The name mordent is derived from the Latin verb mordere meaning 'to bite'.

    The symbol for the shake is sometimes confused with the symbol for the mordent, the latter first appearing in Chambonnières' "1st Book of Pieces" (1670). It should be pointed out that although some commentators suggest the ornament is basically a French invention, ornamentation identical to the mordent is referred to earlier by Playford, Thomas Mace and Christopher Simpson in England and by Nicolaus Ammerbach, in his "Orgel - oder Instrument - Tablatur" (1571).

    In music written before the nineteenth century, the mordent (written as a shake sign crossed by a vertical line) is a sequence of three notes (the written note, the note below and returning to the written note). This is sometimes called a 'lower' mordent to distinguish it from the nineteenth-century ornament (written as a shake sign) called the 'upper' mordent or Schneller, also a sequence of three notes (the written note, the note above and back to the written note). These are both illustrated below.

    The term 'inverted mordent' is one that causes much confusion. Depending on the period when the term is being used it can mean either of the two mordent forms we have illustrated above. The 'lower' mordent is the original mordent form and so the term 'inverted' should really be used to describe the 'upper mordent'. Unfortunately, from the nineteenth century, when the 'upper mordent' had become the more common form, the term 'inverted mordent' was more commonly used to describe the older, original form.

    long or double mordent sign The long or double mordent was an extended mordent, a sequence of five notes, the written note, the note below, the written note, the note below and returning to the written note.

    See also accidentals and ornamentation

    For information on Haydn's 'half-mordent' see the section on Turns.

    Vibrato :: top

    Key word:


    We have chosen to include vibrato in this section because, in modern day performances of 'early music', vibrato seems to cause performers so many problems. It is clear from instruction books of the period that there were mechanical 'vibrato-like' ornaments such as flattement, battement and bebung. On the transverse flute, martellement and Schwebungen, ébranler (which involves the horizontal shaking of the flute), jaw- and chest-vibratos are described in methods written in the 18th and 19th centuries (see, for example, "Sweetenings" and "Babylonish Gabble" : Flute Vibrato and Articulation of Fast Passages in the 18th and 19th centuries by Maria Bania). Stops on some early organs included a 'vibrato effect' which is this case suggests that the 'effect' might be extended, maybe even lasting throughout a whole movement.

    Patrice Connelly, in his article entitled Vibrato: some historical notes for string players, tells us that for the earliest documents to talk about vibrato in string playing, we must turn to the sources on viola da gamba.

    In music of the Renaissance, the imitation of the human voice was something which instrumentalists were taught to aspire to. The sixteenth-century musician Sylvestro Ganassi published his Regola Rubertina in 1542, and in a passage relating to texts in music, wrote:

    "And the bow will execute sad music in a light manner, and to whisperings shake the bow arm and the fingers of the fingerboard hand in order to make the effect conform to sad and sorrowful music."

    While shaking the bow arm is a direction rarely repeated in later sources, the fact that some sort of vibrato was suggested here for expressive purposes is obvious. What this vibrato sounded like, and exactly how it was achieved unfortunately remain mysteries. Martin Agricola writing in Musica Instrumentalis Deutsch (1545) also mentions a trembling of the fingers. More evidence of vibrato occurs in the seventeenth century, with Marin Mersenne writing in Harmonie Universelle (1636) that:

    "The tone of the violin is the most ravishing [when the players] sweeten it ... by certain tremblings which delight the mind."

    Further on he remarks:

    "The verre cassé [here meaning vibrato] is not used so much now [on the lute] as it was in the past [partly in reaction] because the older ones used it almost all the time. But [it cannot be dispensed with and] must be used in moderation ... the left hand must swing with great violence [the thumb being free of the neck]."

    In an interview with F. Marincola, the pioneering lutenist Diana Poulton also comments on vibrato on the lute:

    We do get descriptions of ornamentation in Nicolas Vallet's lute books. In his first book which was printed in 1615 he describes two ornament sign. One is for an appoggiatura from above, the other is for a trill. In a later book, he describes another "grace", as he calls it, and that is a vibrato. Now vibrato had been used on the lute in Europe for some considerable time. Venegas de Henestrosa in his Libro de cifra nueva para tecla, harpa y vihuela, which was printed in 1557, describes an appoggiatura from above and also a vibrato, although the word vibrato is not used, but he describes this ornament by saying that you need to put the finger on the string and the fret and then wave the hand in the air. This can only be a vibrato. Vibrato, as far as it is used with moderation, seems to be something that should be used in lute music. Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie Universelle (1637), says that vibrato was used so much in the past that it had become almost a vice, but he says also something very valid also today, i.e. that it is just as wrong to omit the vibrato altogether as it is to use too much of it.

    Sarah Urwin Jones, in her article Picking up bad vibrations with Sir Roger Norrington at the Proms, confirms that the Baroque violinist Leclair talked about vibrato filling out the sound, and his peer Geminiani tried to use it as much as possible but Leopold Mozart, the father of the composer, was one of many down the centuries who warned against its overuse, for fear one might appear to have the palsy.

    'Vibrato' is the slight and quick wavering of pitch about a mean, which many of us use probably without thinking, whether playing or singing, to add lustre to our tone. If the pitch change is small and its frequency great enough, the ear no longer perceives a series of different notes, but only a change in timbre or tone-colour. There are, according to Robert Donington, good acoustic as well as historical reasons for including vibrato in proper moderation.

    Recent researches put the time-span after which it is possible for our own faculties to perceive a new aural event as such, and not merely as an undifferentiated continuation, at about one-twentieth to one-eighteenth of a second. Any absolutely unvarying persistence of the same aural signal beyond this time-span rapidly fatigues that band of fibres in the basilar membrane of the ear which is involved in detecting it: there is then a subjective decline both in the volume and in the colorfulness of the sound perceived. It seems to go a little dead on us; and this is the acoustic consideration which makes vibrato a natural rather than an artificial recourse on melodic instruments. The vibrato just mitigates that deadening persistence.

    Dr. Valerie Flook writing in The Recorder Magazine (Winter 2002) comments:

    Production of a constant air flow at the mouth is probably an impossibility. In my experience (a physicist teaching physiology) subjects attempting to breathe out at a constant rate (usually by following a trace defining the flow as a visible signal) even after training, produce something which oscillates slightly. I am sure expert wind players can do better than the average respiratory physiologist but in fact the respiratory system is almost designed to oscillate. Controlled expiration is achieved by controlling the activity of antagonistic respiratory muscles and these are continuously "hunting". The relative roles of the antagonistic muscles change as lung volume changes. In addition, a muscle mass contracts not by all the motor units being active at once but by a number of units contracting. A muscle fibre is either contracted or it is not; graduated muscle activity is by contraction of appropriate numbers of fibres. Contracted fibres "tire", use up metabolic substrates and other fibres take over; so even within a small part of a muscle there is continuously changing activity. Given this complexity it would be surprising if a constant flow, to within the equivalent of 1 cent (1% of a semitone) could be achieved.

    Today we use vibrato primarily because it is prevalent in the music to which we listen. Using vibrato well requires that it be taught properly as an important aspect of modern instrumental and vocal technique.

    Another important reason why vibrato is perceptible as a constant in the vocal tone of modern singing is because of the greater air pressure used. When there is a change in air pressure or in the size of the air stream, the larynx will automatically respond differently. Using a lower pressure (compared to modern operatic singing) avoids the need to control vibrato through mechanical suppression in the vocal tract. Seventeenth-century singing -- whether French or Italian -- is not achieved by taking a modern production and "straightening" the sound. If you try to suppress vibrato without changing the air pressure, you will have to use some kind of constriction in the vocal tract. Such constriction can lead to unnecessary tension and fatigue. This can understandably alarm voice teachers when their students start "straightening" their sounds for singing early music. Using a laryngeal set-up that is unconstricted, with a breath pressure that will allow for vibrato to be used at the singer's discretion, is a common denominator between Italian and French singing in the seventeenth century; what differs is the variable versus steady state air stream. Vibrato would have been consciously added by the singer when desired and was not a natural by-product of the voice production.

    There are two different ways of producing vibrato, one produced with breath pressure (also called 'chest vibrato') and the other produced in the throat. Both types of vibrato mechanism were used during the seventeenth century. The different mechanisms produce a difference in sound for these two types of vibrato but the difference is somewhat subtle. The French would most likely have used a throat-produced vibrato, a mechanism very similar to their trill technique, in order not to disturb their steady air stream. The Italians most likely used a breath-produced vibrato as their norm, since they were using a variable air stream already, with throat vibrato reserved perhaps for more special effects. No seventeenth-century source addresses this issue, although Johann Adam Hiller in the late eighteenth century regarded throat vibrato as the more difficult of the two types of vibrato. This suggests that the eighteenth-century Italo-Germanic School used throat vibrato less often than breath vibrato.

    In the 1960s, and despite a lot of contrary evidence, many influential early music specialists believed that vibrato was never used except as an occasional ornament. The period when this approach might be adopted has been extended, over the last decade or so, to include what we call the 'mid-romantic', the music of Brahms and early Mahler, for instance. Some have pointed to Fritz Kreizler as the populariser of a wider more continuous string vibrato in part because of his association with Viennese 'cafe-music' but Roger Norrington suggests that German orchestras eschewed the use of vibrato until the early 1930s, although admitting that soloists, whether instrumentalist or singer, used vibrato in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

    Many modern commentators like to point out that vibrato is rarely if ever used on either the clarinet or the French horn, but what is the evidence that this is now or indeed has always been true?

    In Notes on vibrato, along with the physical properties of the clarinet by Jonathan Cohler and Conrad Josias, there is a relevant observation about the playing style of the famous Meiningen clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld (1856-1907) for whom Brahms wrote some of his finest music.

    "... A reminiscence of no less a player than Muhlfeld himself seems to suggest that the use of vibrato may have fallen out of fashion temporarily after his day, to return after about thirty years. Just before World War II a question was put to a very old viola player, sometime conductor of the Duke of Devonshire's Orchestra, about the playing of Muhlfeld. The old man had occasionally been called by Joachim to play in his quartet, and on several occasions had played the Brahms Quintet with the great Muhlfeld. Of the clarinetist's playing he was most enthusiastic, saying that three things mainly stuck in his memory. 'He used two clarinets, A and Bb, for the slow movement, to simplify the gypsy section; he had a fiery technique with a warm tone -- and a big vibrato.' Asked again by a startled questioner if he didn't mean to say 'rubato' the old man looked puzzled. 'No' he said, 'vibrato -- much more than Joachim, and as much as the cellist.'"

    According to John Cipolla in his Historical Perspectives of Excellence for the Clarinetist

    "Reginald Kell (1906-1981) is a good example of a (clarinet) player who put his stamp of originality on the listener with his vibrato and phrasing. Many players consider his approach extreme. He used liberal vibrato and took many liberties in phrasing using ritards, accelerandos and tenutos over important structural notes. Though many may not agree with his approach one must respect the fact that he was a very well schooled and practiced musician who had an unique way of playing music on the clarinet."

    On the French horn, too, there are fine players who advocate its use. Consider this excerpt from Denis Brain's article About the French Horn:

    "One feels that the natural sound is beautiful enough without having to add to it by any artificial means, such as vibrato; on the other hand, vibrato is necessary in certain types of music although it has to be most tastefully employed if it is not to become objectionable."

    And a contributor to Information archive wrote:

    Horace Fitzpatrick in his marvelous study, The Horn and Horn Playing and the Austro-Bohemian Tradition 1680-1830, suggests that vibrato was a standard part of horn tone production throughout this period, just as it was in vocal production (upon which horn tone production was/is based). The move away from vibrato was, he suggests, a mostly German thing in the second half of the nineteenth century (Wagner and his conductor-acolytes most prominently), from where it migrated along with German horn players to England and America. If Fitzpatrick is right (and he has more evidence than anyone else, at least), then all of that literature, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, etc., should be played with vibrato, but a vibrato very closely modelled on the vibrato of the best vocalists, i.e., quite variable as to speed and amplitude and applied from this range of choices with what was once called -- how quaint it now sounds! -- taste.

    Indeed, even in the twentieth century, vibrato in horn playing is the distinguishing feature between the French technique (where it is used continuously) and the so-called 'anglo-saxon' technique, found in England, Germany and the USA, where its use is quite rare.

    And so, one might ask, why do so many now believe that vibrato is unacceptable on the clarinet?

    One possible explanation is advanced in the article entitled Music Preview: PSO clarinetist votes 'no' on vibrato for classical works:

    Paul Drushler, a clarinet player and music history scholar who once taught at the State University of New York at Brockport, has studied the vibrato wars involving the instrument and says some of the pronouncements border on ranting.

    Take this excerpt from an article written by Russian virtuoso Simeon Bellison for the magazine Clarinet in 1953:

    "Vibrato is as dangerous a sickness as diabetes. ... But if ever America stopped being stubborn and followed the example of Europe, it would get rid of shaky playing once and forever ... If the plague persists, boards of education must call a conference of musicians to attack the problem and everything related to it."

    Bellison's article was written near the end of the big band era, in which clarinet front men and soloists like (Benny) Goodman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Hamilton in the Duke Ellington Orchestra were highly popular, and they freely used vibrato.

    For that reason, Drushler -- who thinks occasional vibrato on the classical clarinet is just fine -- ventures that "at least 80 percent" of the bias against vibrato is its "association with other things considered negative, like jazz or pop music."

    It should be noted that many, if not all, of those critical of the use of vibrato were pointing to its overuse rather than advocating that it should not be used at all. It would appear, taking a broad reading of evidence drawn from many centuries, that there were periods when and places where vibrato was acceptable, as well as periods when and places where the reaction to it was negative, sometimes violently so.

    However, this point does not appear to inform many of those now engaged in performing what we call 'early music'. For many decades there was an almost total rejection of the use of vibrato in modern performances of 'early music', except as a very occasional ornament, which contributed to many dry, and sometimes rather dull, performances that found an audience that 'felt' it was 'early' because it is not what they believed to be 'modern'. The fatal circularity in this argument should be obvious.

    We have provided below links to several web sites in which vibrato is discussed and which show that this is a question on which there remains no unanimity.

    The German philosopher Thomas W. Adorno (1903-1969), writing in A Composer's World, comments:

    'All traits that made the music of the past lovable to its contemporary performers and listeners were inextricably associated with the kind of sound then known and appreciated. If we replace this sound by the sounds typical of our modern instruments and their treatment, we are counterfeiting the musical message the original sound was trying to transmit. Consequently, all music ought to be performed with the means of production that were in use when the composer gave it to his contemporaries ...'

    However, there is a 'sting' in the tail:

    'Our spirit of life is not identical with that of our ancestors, and therefore their music, even if restored with utter technical perfection, can never have for us precisely the same meaning it had for them. We cannot tear down the barricade that separates the present world from things and deeds past; the symbols and its prototype cannot be made to coincide absolutely.'

    Arguments like this have led a number of modern commentators to question the whole philosophy underpinning what we call 'early musical performance' and you are recommended to read their works, the best of which, Text and Act, is by Richard Taruskin.


  • Text and Act by Richard Taruskin
        (Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-19-509458-1)
  • 'Sweetenings and Babylonish Gabble - Flute vibrato and Articulation in the 18th and 19th Centuries by Dr Maria Bania
        (University of Gothenburg, 2008. ISBN: 978:91-975911-7-1)
  • The Sound Orchestras Make by Roger Norrington
        (Early Music, Oxford University Press, February 2004)
  • Old Music for New by Christopher Hogwood
  • Use of Vibrato in Baroque Vocal Music
  • The Vibrato Thing by David Montgomery
  • Observations on the Technique of Italian Singing from the 16th Century to the Present Day
  • Vibrato and Tremulo on the Recorder
  • Notes on vibrato, along with the physical properties of the clarinet
  • Historical Perspectives of Excellence for the Clarinetist
  • Flute Vibrato
  • Vibrato in Classical String Technique
  • Vibrato: some historical notes for string players
  • Elgar Without Vibrato? Fiddlesticks
  • PSO clarinetist votes 'no' on vibrato for classical works
  • About the French Horn
  • Information archive
  • Vibrato by Thomas Bacon (The Cyberhorn Museum)
  • Why you shouldn't use vibrato
  • An Introduction to Singing Technique and a Short History of the Countertenor by Daniel Taylor - includes a discussion of vibrato
  • Can Blacks Play Klezmer? Authenticity in American Ethnic Musical Expression - problems with authenticity

  • Arpeggiation :: top

    Key word:


    arpègement (French), Brechung, Arpeggio (German), arpeggio (Italian)

    In a previous lesson we discussed broken and spread chords. Accompanists, whether performing on keyboard, plucked stringed or certain bowed stringed instruments, would take the formal chord structure and extemporise series of arpeggios - played in a 'harp-like manner'. This technique later became common in music written for the piano for which a special symbol was introduced. The chord to be arpeggiated might lie on one stave or across both staves and occasionally the arpeggiation should be played from the top of the chord to the bass, in which case a downward pointing arrow would be placed beside the special symbol, a vertical wavy line. Note, if a single arpeggio sign extends across both staves then the two hands play successively.

    When playing an arpeggio with both hands on a keyboard instrument a distinction is made between chords where from the bottom of the left hand chord to the top of the right hand chord no note is missing and those where one or more chord notes are missing.

    The first example shows where no note is missing between the two chords, in which case the two chords is treated as a single arpeggio and both chords are played in sequence.

    The second example shows where a number of notes are missing between the two chords, in which case the two arpeggios are played simultaneously.

    We thank Steven Otto for spotting an earlier error which has now been corrected.

    Divisions :: top

    Key words:


    The musical form, Theme and Variations, has its origins in a musical form known as 'Divisions' or in Spanish Diferencias, which can be translated as "differences". Some of earliest examples come from the sixteenth century, e.g. by Luis de Narváez. A simple theme would be extended through formal ornamentation and free extemporisation becoming melodically more convoluted and extended. In earlier times, these variations would be written down only in teaching methods. Divisioning was in music of the fifteenth and sixteenth century what we hear in modern jazz - variation for the purpose of developing or displaying technical or musical prowess.


  • Ornamentation and Divisions

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