Using music ornaments in a piece of music is very much like putting an ornament on a Christmas tree! The tree is still a Christmas tree but it looks even more beautiful with an ornament. An ornament is not essential to the piece of music but it definitely makes it more decorative. Ornaments in music add exciting embellishments to every style of music!
The way we see ornaments in classical music is either by seeing a symbol or it will be written out. There are many different types of ornaments but in this post we will look at the most common ones. Understanding music ornamentation is essential for your music theory knowledge.
When Did Ornamentation Start?
Music ornaments started with baroque music where composers such as Bach added it in to make the music more exciting. In the baroque period, musicians were given a little more freedom to play ornaments freely in the music. As we moved into the classical period, ornaments were much more prescribed and the performer would play what is written.
The trill is probably the most common ornament you have seen in your music. We sometimes call the trill a ‘shake’. This ornament involves a rapid alternation between two notes. The most common note to trill to is the note above. We sometimes refer to the note above as an auxiliary note.
It is possible to see trills where you trill down to the note below, but this is less common.
In music the trill is represented with the small letter ‘tr’ and then wavy line to show how long you will be trilling for.
When performing a trill it is often finished with a short closing pattern that uses the note below. As you can see in the example.
There are a few different ways to play a trill depending on the period of music you are playing in. Nowadays, you start on the principal note of the trill (the note written on the music) and then simply trill to the note above, finishing on that note at the end. However, this was not always the case.
In the 18th century (baroque period), it was the convention to start on the note written above the principal note of the trill.
Now we will look at another common ornament, mordents.
The mordent has two different types, the upper mordent and the lower mordent. These are represented by two slightly different symbols.
An upper mordent, usually referred to as simply a mordent, is where we play the note written, quickly move one note above and then move back to the original note. It is a little like a mini trill in that it is the same action but we only have one movement! A mordent is shown in the music by a short wavy line as you can see in the image below. However, a mordent can also be written out in notes in the music, rather than using the symbol.
A lower mordent (or inverted mordent) is exactly the same as an upper mordent except this time it is inverted and we move one note below! To play this ornament, we play the original note and then we quickly move to the note below, and back to the original note. This is shown in the music with the same wavy line as an upper mordent but this time we put a vertical line straight down the middle. However, as with the upper mordent, it is also commonly seen written out note for note instead of using the symbol.
An appoggiatura is another very common ornament that you will see in your music. This is represented by a small note written next to the larger original note. To play this ornament, the small note will take half the value of the larger principal note.
We sometimes refer to the appoggiatura as a leaning note. An appoggiatura is commonly used to bring a sense of suspense to a piece of music!
In the example below you will see how the appoggiatura works when put in front of a minim (half note) but also how it will work when put in front of a crotchet (quarter note)!
The next music ornament we will look at is the Acciaccatura. The acciaccatura is sometimes called a grace note or a crushed note! The acciaccatura looks very similar to the appoggiatura in music, in that it is represented by a small note written next to the larger original note. However, it is actually very different! When you see the small note in music, this will have a dash through it, as you can see in the example below!
Now let’s look at how the acciaccatura is played. Where an appoggiatura takes half the value of the note it is written on, an acciaccatura is played quickly! Effectively, it is crushed!
A turn is represented by a sideways letter S written above the main note. A turn is also sometimes written out. There are two types of turn.
- A Regular Turn
- An Inverted Turn
A regular turn is a rapid movement between the note below and the note above the main note. We begin by playing the main note, then the note above, the main note, the note below and back to the main note. Essentially, when we see the symbol for a regular turn the note it has been put on divides into four different notes!
An inverted turn is written in one of two ways, either a sideways S shape with a line through the middle or with S literally inverted!
There are more music ornaments but these are the most important ones to know in music theory. Ornaments became popular in the baroque period but have been used through out all periods of music, classical period, romantic period and even now in our modern day music.
- Learn about the four main clefs: treble, bass, alto and tenor.
- See our guide to chords including how to use figured bass notation.