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Musical Ornaments – Terms Explained

We all know what an ornament is. We probably have quite a few in our own houses and apartments. But what are they in musical terms, these Musical Ornaments? Musically, an ornament, or to use another word, an embellishment, has been around for a long time. Centuries, in fact.

Used to Impress

During the late Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical periods of music, they were commonly in use. Musical ornaments were often used by musicians to demonstrate their skill. There really wasn’t any other way of impressing a prospective employer.

Sometimes an impressive collection of musical ornaments would impress the Lord or Lady at court. They would serve the musician a little like the educational qualifications on a CV today.

It was in the Baroque period that Ornaments really became fashionable. And not only in music. Just take a look at the over-elaborated and decorated architecture of the time. It is everywhere in the design of the buildings.

What Do Musical Ornaments Consist Of?

What Do Musical Ornaments Consist Of

They consist of minor additions, improvisations, and variations on the main themes. Mozart, of course, may well have been the most well-known composer to use ornaments

When confronted with a piece written by someone else, he would usually apply his own ornaments, usually to the disgust and sometimes anger of the original composer who may well have been present.

Are they essential to the music?

Is the color of a house an essential element in making sure it doesn’t collapse? Of course not. It is decoration. Musical Ornaments are used in a very similar way. They are decorations.

They are not essential to the structure of the melody. But they do add a little bit of extra interest and sometimes a little complexity. And they are there sometimes just to show off.

A Powerful Part of Music

As time has passed, these ornaments have been written into music as part of the structure of the piece. Subsequently, there are now lists of the common ornaments. Each has its own symbols that are written into the music. So, here are some of the most common ornaments in music.

  • Trills.
  • Grace notes.
  • Acciaccaturas.
  • Appoggiaturas.
  • Mordents.
  • Turns.

Let’s take a look at them individually.

Trills

Trills

This is one of the most common ornaments you will see and hear. Trills are easy to play and feature a quick alternation between two notes that are adjacent to each other.

It is an interesting ornament. It has been played in two different ways according to the century the music was written. In the 18th century and before, the trill would commence on the note above the base trill note. And then it moves up and down to and from the base note.

As an example, a trill with the base note of ‘A’ before 1800 would commence with a Bb and then come down to the trill note. In the 19th century, the Trill will usually start on the trill note of ‘A’ and go up to Bb and then back down. Composers will sometimes show this when writing it down as “Grace Notes.” We shall look at those soon.

How many notes are in a Trill?

The simple answer is as many as you like. Or perhaps more accurately, as many as fits the tempo of the music. You could get more Trills in when the temp is slow. But you really don’t want too many; otherwise, it would start to sound rather silly.

Grace Notes

Let’s just take a quick look at Grace Notes. These are shown in the music as small notes placed before a full-size note that is part of the melody. They are not counted as part of the lengths of the notes in a bar.

One grace note on its own is written as a “mini quaver.” To add a little more recognition, it has a line passing through it. If there are more than two grace notes, they are noted as semiquavers and then ‘beamed’ together. There are two types of grace notes in music.

The Acciaccatura

This is also sometimes called a “crushed” note. You will find it in classical music especially. They are written in front of the main note and are to be played as quickly as possible.

The Appoggiatura

Very similar to the Acciaccatura, they are placed in front of the main note. They are played starting a note below or above the main note. And they are held for half the time of the main note.

How do you play them?

There is often some debate about this. Do you play a grace note on the beat or before the beat? Some composers will demonstrate what they want and how and when it should be played.

Mordents

Mordents

These are very similar to Trills, not only in the way they are played but in how they are written. You could describe the Mordent as “a bit less of an ornament than a trill.” 

With a Mordent, you might start on the ‘A’ note, go down to the ‘G,’ and then back to the ‘A.’ That is it. That is what is known as a “Lower Mordent.” The Trill, as we have seen, has far more “decoration.”

There are two types of Mordent in music, one of which we have just mentioned. We have the Upper Mordent and also the Lower or the Inverted Mordent. They are both drawn using a wavy line, but the Lower has an added vertical line passing through it. A little challenge for you if you are sight-reading.

The Upper Mordent

Has three notes. You play the first note, go up to the next note above and then play the first note again. This would be, for example- ‘A then B then back to A.’ The first ‘A to B’ is usually played very quickly.

The Lower Mordent 

I have already shown this a bit earlier. ‘A to G and then back to A.’ Mordents are an interesting addition to music. Bach was known to use them a lot in his music.

Turns

There are two different types of turns in music, Regular and Inverted.

The Regular Turn 

This splits the note written into four separate notes. It is shown by the symbol above the note. So, if it was placed above a crochet, that would indicate a “crochet turn.” 

Therefore, you would play four semiquavers. This starts on the note above the principal note, then goes down to the main note. Then the note below, and finally returning to the main note again.

The Inverted Turn

These are played the reverse way of the regular turn. They start on the note that is below the main note, and then the main note. Followed by the note above and finally back to the main note. These are written like the regular note but with a line through it. Another little sight-reading challenge for you.

Making the Most of Music Theory

Sometimes musical theory can seem daunting. There always seems to be something else. But put into order and context, it all makes sense. It just takes some study and some time and effort.

Some further reading on music theory, have a look at Music Theory Essentials or Music in Theory and Practice Volume 1. For an interesting work on the effects of Ornaments on composers, there is Details of Consequence: Ornament, Music, and Art in Paris.

Want to Improve Your Music Theory Knowledge?

Our experts can give you a hand. Check out our handy guides on The Scale Degree Names ExplainedThe Dorian ModeThe Treble ClefThe Tenor ClefThe Bass ClefThe Aeolian Mode, and What Is Theme And Variation In Music for more helpful info.

An instrument upgrade can also be a huge help. Have a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Digital Grand Piano, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, and the Best Trumpet you can buy in 2021.

Performing Musical Ornaments – Final Thoughts

This is an area where many musicians have their own opinions about how they are played. That is a good thing. Sometimes an individual musician can be recognized by how he handles and interprets the ornaments.

There will sometimes be composers’ notes on how they want them to be played. If not, then you have the license to use your own style.

So, until next time, let your music play.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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