Ornament (music)

Ornament (music)

An extreme example of ornamentation as a fioritura from Chopin's Nocturne in D major

In music, ornaments or embellishments are musical flourishes that are not necessary to carry the overall line of the melody (or harmony), but serve instead to decorate or "ornament" that line. Many ornaments are performed as "fast notes" around a central note. The amount of ornamentation in a piece of music can vary from quite extensive (it was often so in the Baroque period) to relatively little or even none. The word agrément is used specifically to indicate the French Baroque style of ornamentation.

In the baroque period, it was common for performers to improvise ornamentation on a given melodic line. A singer performing a da capo aria, for instance, would sing the melody relatively unornamented the first time, but decorate it with additional flourishes the second time. Improvised ornamentation continues to be part of the Irish musical tradition,[1] particularly in sean-nós singing but also throughout the wider tradition as performed by the best players.

Ornamentation may also be indicated by the composer. A number of standard ornaments (described below) are indicated with standard symbols in music notation, while other ornamentations may be appended to the score in small notes, or simply written out normally. Frequently, a composer will have his or her own vocabulary of ornaments, which will be explained in a preface, much like a code. A grace note is a note written in smaller type, with or without a slash through it, to indicate that its note value does not count as part of the total time value of the bar. Alternatively, the term may refer more generally to any of the small notes used to mark some other ornament (see Appoggiatura, below), or in association with some other ornament’s indication (see Trill, below), regardless of the timing used in the execution.

In Spain, melodies ornamented upon repetition ("divisions") were called "diferencias", and can be traced back to 1538, when Luis de Narváez published the first collection of such music for the vihuela.[2]


  • Western classical music 1
    • Trill 1.1
    • Mordent 1.2
    • Turn 1.3
    • Appoggiatura 1.4
    • Acciaccatura 1.5
    • Glissando 1.6
    • Schleifer 1.7
  • In Baroque music 2
  • Renaissance and early Baroque 3
  • Indian classical music 4
  • In non-classical music 5
    • Rock and pop 5.1
    • Jazz 5.2
    • Celtic music 5.3
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Western classical music


A trill, also known as a "shake", is a rapid alternation between an indicated note and the one above.

Sometimes it is expected that the trill will end with a turn (by sounding the note below rather than the note above the principal note, immediately before the last sounding of the principal note), or some other variation. Such variations are often marked with a few grace notes following the note that bears the trill indication. The trill is indicated by either a tr~~~ or a tr~~~~~, with the ~ representing the length of the trill, above the staff. In Baroque music, the trill is sometimes indicated with a + (plus) sign above or below the note.


There is also a single tone trill variously called trillo or tremolo in late Renaissance and early Baroque.


The mordent is thought of as a rapid alternation between an indicated note, the note above (called the upper mordent, inverted mordent, or pralltriller) or below (called the lower mordent or mordent), and the indicated note again.

The upper mordent is indicated by a short thick squiggle (which may also indicate a trill); the lower mordent is the same with a short vertical line through it:

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As with the trill, the exact speed with which the mordent is performed will vary according to the tempo of the piece, but, at a moderate tempo, the above might be executed as follows:

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First bar of Goldberg Variation 7, first played with lower mordents, then without (134 KB)

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Confusion over the meaning of the unadorned word mordent has led to the modern terms upper and lower mordent being used, rather than mordent and inverted mordent. Practice, notation, and nomenclature vary widely for all of these ornaments, that is to say, whether, by including the symbol for a mordent in a musical score, a composer intended the direction of the additional note (or notes) to be played above or below the principal note written on the sheet music varies according to when the piece was written, and in which country. This article as a whole addresses an approximate nineteenth-century standard.

In the Baroque period, a Mordant (the German or Scottish equivalent of mordent) was what later came to be called an inverted mordent and what is now often called a lower mordent. In the 19th century, however, the name mordent was generally applied to what is now called the upper mordent. Although mordents are now thought of as just a single alternation between notes, in the Baroque period a Mordant may sometimes have been executed with more than one alternation between the indicated note and the note below, making it a sort of inverted trill. Mordents of all sorts might typically, in some periods, begin with an extra inessential note (the lesser, added note), rather than with the principal note as shown in the examples here. The same applies to trills, which in Baroque and Classical times would standardly begin with the added, upper note. A lower inessential note may or may not be chromatically raised (that is, with a natural, a sharp, or even a double sharp) to make it just one semitone lower than the principal note.


A turn is a short figure consisting of the note above the one indicated, the note itself, the note below the one indicated, and the note itself again. It is marked by a mirrored S-shape lying on its side above the staff.

The details of its execution depend partly on the exact placement of the turn mark. The following turns:

might be executed like this:

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The exact speed at which the notes of a turn are executed can vary, as can its rhythm. The question of how a turn is best executed is largely one of context, convention, and taste. The lower and upper added notes may or may not be chromatically raised (see mordent).

An inverted turn (the note below the one indicated, the note itself, the note above it, and the note itself again) is usually indicated by putting a short vertical line through the normal turn sign, though sometimes the sign itself is turned upside down.


Appoggiatura (; Italian: ) comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, "to lean upon". The long appoggiatura (as opposed to the short appoggiatura, the acciaccatura) is important melodically and often suspends the principal note by taking away the time-value of the appoggiatura prefixed to it (generally half the time value of the principal note, though in simple triple or compound meters, for example, it might receive two thirds of the time). The added note (the unessential note) is one degree higher or lower than the principal note; and, if lower, it may or may not be chromatically raised (see mordent).

The appoggiatura is often written as a grace note prefixed to a principal note and printed in small character, usually without the oblique stroke:

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This may be executed as follows:

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A passage with two phrases ending in appoggiaturas, followed by these phrases without them (160 KB)

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Appoggiaturas are also usually on the strong or strongest beat of the resolution and are approached by a leap and left by step. (see http://www.ars-nova.com/Theory%20Q&A/Q93.html . Also Kent Kennan, Counterpoint, Fourth Edition, pg 40. This notation has also been used to mark an accent in the articulation of vocal music, meaning that the grace note should be emphasized, for example in Haydn's Missa Brevis in G major, fifth bar for soprano and tenor voices.

So-called unaccented appoggiaturas are also quite common in many periods of music, even though they are disapproved of by some early theorists (for example CPE Bach, in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen). While not being identical with the acciaccatura (see below), these are almost always quite short, and take their time from the allocation for the note that precedes them. They are more likely to be seen as full-size notes in the score, rather than in small character – at least in modern editions.

An ascending appoggiatura was previously known as a forefall, while a descending appoggiatura was known as a backfall.


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Acciaccatura (, Italian: ) comes from the Italian verb schiacciare, "to crush". The acciaccatura (sometimes called short appoggiatura) is perhaps best thought of as a shorter, variant of the long appoggiatura, where the delay of the principal note is quick. It is written using a grace note (often a quaver, or eighth note), with an oblique stroke through the stem. The acciaccatura in the Classical period is usually performed before the beat and the emphasis is on the main note not the grace note. The appoggiatura long or short has the emphasis on the grace note.

The exact interpretation of this will vary according to the tempo of the piece, but the following is possible: About this sound   

Whether the note should be played before or on the beat is largely a question of taste and performance practice. Exceptionally, the acciaccatura may be notated in the bar preceding the note to which it is attached, showing that it is to be played before the beat. (This guide to practice is unfortunately not available, of course, if the principal note does not fall at the beginning of the bar.)

The implication also varies with the composer and the period. For example, Prokofiev's before-the-beat acciaccaturas.


A glissando is a slide from one note to another, signified by a wavy line connecting the two notes. All of the intervening diatonic or chromatic (depending on instrument and context) are heard, albeit very briefly. In this way, the glissando differs from portamento.

In contemporary classical music (especially in avant garde pieces) a glissando tends to assume the whole value of the initial note.


Schleifer notation

A slide (Schleifer in German) instructs the performer to begin one or two scale steps below the marked note and slide upward. The schleifer usually includes a prall trill or mordent trill at the end.

Willard A. Palmer wrote, "The schleifer is a 'sliding' ornament, usually used to fill in the gap between a note and the previous one."[3]

In Baroque music

Ornaments in Baroque music take on a different meaning. Most ornaments occur on the beat, and use diatonic intervals more exclusively than ornaments in later periods do. While any table of ornaments must give a strict presentation, consideration has to be given to the tempo and note length, since at rapid tempos it would be difficult or impossible to play all of the notes that are usually required. One realisation of some common Baroque ornaments is set in the following table from the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach written by J.S. Bach:

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Renaissance and early Baroque

From Silvestro Ganassi’s treatise in 1535 we have instruction and examples of how musicians of renaissance and early baroque decorated their music with improvised ornaments. Michael Praetorius spoke warmly of musicians’ "sundry good and merry pranks with little runs/leaps".

Until the last decade of the 16th century the emphasis is on divisions, also known as diminutions, passaggi (in Italian), gorgia ("throat", first used as a term for vocal ornamentation by Nicola Vicentino in 1555), or glosas (by Ortiz, in both Spanish and Italian) – a way to decorate a simple cadence or interval with extra shorter notes. These start as simple passing notes, progress to step-wise additions and in the most complicated cases are rapid passages of equal valued notes – virtuosic flourishes. There are rules for designing them, to make sure that the original structure of the music is left intact. Towards the end of this period the divisions detailed in the treatises contain more dotted and other uneven rhythms and leaps of more than one step at a time.

Starting with Archilei (1589), the treatises bring in a new set of expressive devices called graces alongside the divisions. These have a lot more rhythmic interest and are filled with affect as composers took much more interest in text portrayal. It starts with the trillo and cascate, and by the time we reach Francesco Rognoni (1620) we are also told about fashionable ornaments: portar la voce, accento, tremolo, gruppo, esclamatione and intonatio.[4]

Key treatises detailing ornamentation:

Indian classical music

Indian classical music is based on ragas, a modal system similar to Jazz with scales of five to seven main notes (beside the microtones) in the ascending and descending form. Its origin is dated back to the Vedas. Indian classical music has evolved and split into two main parts: North Indian classical (Hindustani) and South Indian classical (Carnatic).

In Indian music generally and especially in Indian classical music, staccato or isolated notes are almost unheard. With the exception of some very few instruments, the Indian notes (swaras) are not of static nature. Each swara is linked with its preceding or succeeding note. Such an extra note (or grace note) known as Kan-Swaras set up the basis of all kind of alankars (Sanskrit: decoration with ornaments, ornaments of sound (shabd-alankar) or ornaments of words).

The classification of alankars is relating to the structure of ragas and the aesthetic aspect (latter classification = Shabdalankar). All techniques refer to the sound production utilized by the human voice, imitated by any kind of Indian instrument (e.g. Sitar, Sarod, Shehnai, Sarangi, Santoor, etc.).

The variations of a raga performance within a defined frame of compositorial rules and reglements using the different types of Alankara-s can be termed as whole simply as alankar.

Different types and combinations of alankars exist, e.g. Meend, Sparsh, Krintan, Andolan, Gamak, Kampit (or Kampan), Khatka (or Gitkari), Zamzama, Murki.

In non-classical music

Rock and pop

Ornamentation is also used in popular music such as rock and pop. Rock piano playing has incorporated many ornaments from early 1900s blues piano styles such as boogie-woogie. Improvised ornaments in rock solos or instrumental melody lines are often idiosyncratic to specific instruments. Electric guitar players can draw from an immense array of ornaments that are specific to their instrument. Hammer-ons and pull-offs are two of the most basic techniques, and may be used in executing classical ornaments, as well as for the execution of ornaments more particular to guitar (such as tapping, which can be used as ornamentation or as a playing style in and of itself).

While rock and pop are typically learned by ear, with the arrangements fleshed out with improvisation, the style also includes notated music, particularly in arranged music for larger ensembles. This notated music uses some of the most-used "Classical" ornaments, such as trills and mordents.


Jazz music incorporates a number of ornaments, which can be divided into improvised ornaments. They are added by performers during their solo extemporizations, and as written ornaments. Improvised ornaments are often idiosyncratic to specific instruments. The Hammond organ playing in the jazz sub-genre of organ trio soul jazz often features trills which outline the harmony of a chord, glisses up or down the keyboard, and turn-like decorations. Saxophone players may decorate a simple melody line with turns, grace notes, and short glissandi created with the mouth and the reed.

While jazz is substantially based upon improvisation, the style also includes notated music, particularly in music for larger ensembles such as big bands. Small ensembles may also use notated music for part of their performances, in arrangements of a tune’s main theme. Notated jazz music incorporates most of the standard "classical" ornaments, such as trills, grace notes, and mordents. As well, written jazz notation may also include other ornaments, such as "dead" or "ghost" notes (a percussive sound, notated by an "X"), glissandi (step-wise glides between a start and destination note, written with a long line), "doit" notes and "fall" notes (annotated by curved lines above the note, indicating by direction of curve that the note should either rapidly rise or fall on the scale),[5] or an instruction to "fill" part of a bar with an embellishment (notated with diagonal slashes in the bar).

Celtic music

Ornamentation is a major distinguishing characteristic of Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton music. A singer, fiddler, flautist, harpist, tin whistler, piper or a player of another instrument may add grace notes (known as 'cuts' in Irish fiddling), slides, rolls, doubling, mordents, drones, trebles (or Birls in Scottish fiddling), or a variety of other ornaments to a given melody.

See also


  1. ^ Ó Canainn, Tomás (1993). Traditional Music in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: Ossian Publications Ltd.  
  2. ^ Elaine Sisman, "Variations, §4: Origins", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
  3. ^ First Lesson in Bach for the Piano, Edited by Walter Carroll & Willard A. Palmer, p. 3
  4. ^ Rognoni, Riccardo (2002). Passaggi per potersi essercitare nel diminuire (1592); edition with preface by Bruce Dickey. Arnaldo Forni Editore. 
  5. ^ Read, Gardner (1969). Music notation: a manual of modern practice. Allyn and Bacon. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 

Further reading

  • Donington, Robert. A Performer's Guide to Baroque Music. London: Faber & Faber, 1975.
  • Neumann, Frederick. Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music, with Special Emphasis on J. S. Bach. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978. ISBN 0-691-09123-4 (cloth); ISBN 0-691-02707-2 (pbk).

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons