Ornamentation in Music: Trills, Turns & Nonharmonic Tones

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  • 0:04 Ornamentation in Music
  • 1:11 Turns
  • 2:25 Trills
  • 3:25 Non-Harmonic Tones
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Amy Fredrickson

Amy has taught and tutored college-level English; she has a master's degree from Colorado State University in rhetoric and composition.

Why would you want to write notes into your music that don't contribute to the chord structure? In this lesson, we'll answer that question and look at some popular embellishments used for musical ornamentation.

Ornamentation in Music

Ever seen a Baroque cathedral and wondered, ''Is all of that decoration really necessary?'' The answer is no, of course not. Most of what you see on that building is not essential to the physical structure or even aesthetic harmony of the cathedral. It's extra decoration, added just for the sake of visual complexity and to show off a little. In a word, it's ornamentation.

Baroque architects loved their ornamentation, and so did Baroque composers. In music, ornamentation refers to embellishments that aren't necessary to the structure of either the melody or harmony. They're extra, added for a little extra musical texture and, again, sometimes just to show off a bit.

These elements are purely decorative, but can be pretty effective when used correctly. Baroque composers saw this as a way to break from the logical and intellectual nature of music and to encourage a more emotional response by filling the composition.

Ornamentation helped draw the listener in and created more moments of emotional tension and release. It was full, rich, and textured.


There are many ways to ornament music, but let's start by looking at some of the most common. If you're reading music and you see a sort of squiggly line that looks like a sideways 'S' above a note, that's a sign to insert a sort of ornamentation known as a turn.

A turn is a unique embellishment that adds a bit of dissonance by playing with the tone on the page, which we'll call the core note. To perform a turn, you start by playing the note above the core note, then the core note, then the note below the core note, and finally the core note again.

For example, if you see a G with a turn symbol over it, you'd play that as A-G-F-G. It's a four-step process that's played within the length of the core note as it appears on the page. So you may have to do all that in about the space of a quarter note.

The ornamentation comes from the tight grouping of notes around the core, which is how the turn got its original Italian name gruppetto, which means ''little group''. While the over-core-under-core model is the most common, there are inverted turns (i.e., under-core-over-core), as well as modified turns where the extra notes are adjusted by a half-step with an accidental (as in making them flat or sharp).


If you don't want to go through the full four-step process of the turn, then you could embellish your composition with a trill, which is a repetitive alteration between two notes, generally very quickly.

Trills almost always fluctuate between the core note and notes either a semitone or whole tone above or below; they rarely if ever expand beyond that distance. A trill is indicated in sheet music by the letters tr above the core note.

A very simple trill is just a quick back-and-forth between notes. So, if you saw the tr over a G, the trill could be a very quick G-A-G. You go up a step and back down in a short span of time.

Of course, some trills are much longer. If the tr is followed by a tilde (~), that generally indicates an extended trill. If there are multiple tildes in a row (~~~), you hold the trill for the length of the symbols. So, instead of playing G-A-G, your trill would be GAGA. . . and so on.

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Additional Activities

Ornamentation in Music: Writing Prompts

The below writing prompts ask students to listen to pieces including trills and turns. Students are then asked to consider the effect of these embellishments, helping them to more fully understand ornamentation in music.

Prompt 1: Trills

  • Listen to the following compositions for classical piano that include trills; if possible, access the accompanying sheet music and follow along. After listening to each composition at least twice, answer the questions that follow (questions should be answered for each composition). Compositions: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor (Brahms) and Nocturne Op. 62, No. 1 (Chopin).
  1. Describe one instance of a trill in the piece, noting its technical elements (i.e. what notes are alternated between? What is the core note? How long is the trill?)
  2. Describe the overall effect the trill(s) have on the piece as a whole (i.e. how does it contribute to the storytelling aspect of the piece? How does it affect the overall mood of the piece?)

Prompt 2: Turns

  • Listen to the following composition that includes turns; if possible, access the accompanying sheet music and follow along. After listening to the composition at least twice, answer the questions that follow. Composition: Rondo in A Minor (Mozart).
  1. Describe all instances of a turn throughout the piece, focusing on the technical elements (i.e. what notes are played in the turn and at what tempo?)
  2. Explain the overall effect each turn has on the listener. (Think about the effect of dissonance turns can have and expand.)

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