Decorating the Sounds of the Season and Beyond

With the holidays here and seasonal décor everywhere, it’s appropriate to discuss the musical term “ornamentation” for this edition of Performing Arts Lingo. The word itself more likely brings stage set design to mind than instrumental trills and grace notes, but in music it covers the spectrum of the kind of embellishments Liberace made a career out of.

Etymology can be traced back to 17-century music for lutes and harpsichords, instruments that make sounds that decay quickly when notes are struck. To extend the sound, musicians “broke” chords into arpeggios, struck single notes repetitively, rapidly alternated half and whole steps for trills or slid up or down a whole step for grace notes, among other flourishes not essential to the melodic line. During the Baroque period these improvised embellishments and more became standardized in musical notation, meant to be played as written without deviation. They are drawn on to enhance melody or rhythm, or create harmonic dissonance.

So the next time you attend a classical music event, say, the Jan. 17 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert featuring principal guest conductor and violin soloist Pinchas Zukerman and hear him perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, listen for the ornamentations and consider how they are a connection to early improvisation in what is now classical music.

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