A Quick Guide to Musical Ornaments on the Guitar

Musical ornaments and trills can bring a mundane tune to new heights. They can make music more flowing and psychologically compelling. But they come with a set of rules.

Like adjectives in language, there are ways to use them so they work to the best effect. When you play ornaments well, using the following guidelines, you’ll sound better.


The following is a transcript of the video. Pardon any grammatical errors.

Rules for Playing Ornaments on Classical Guitar

1) Keep Ornaments in Rhythm

There are a few rules to remember when dealing with ornaments (guitar ornaments or on any other instrument), the first of which is to keep ornaments in rhythm.

This means that if you have a tempo going along and you have a note and ornament over it, you want to make sure that the underlying rhythm stays absolutely rock-steady. And that the ornament does not interfere with the rhythm In any way.

The way to do this is to practice just your primary notes first without any ornaments, And then put your ornaments in later. And this is a good way to ensure that you’re keeping the tempo steady.

Because after all, it is an ornament. Just like  Christmas ornaments on a tree, we would not want them so big that they topple the tree over or rip the branches off. It has to stay in time. So that’s number one.



2) Maintain the Psychological Character of the Music

Number two is that it needs to speak to the psychological character of the piece. So, what does this mean, psychological character?

It means that the ornament is there to give insight into the character, mood, emotion, or style of the piece. As if there were actually an actor playing the part, as if in a play, or an opera, and the musical line was an actual character.

This means that the ornament needs to fit within the context of the music. It needs to sound in place. So basically, what you do? You listen. You listen like crazy. And make sure that you know what you are going for and that it actually works. And that the ornament doesn’t detract from the piece, but actually adds insight and depth to the character of the piece.

An ornament must make it more beautiful, or emphatic so that you have a greater connection to the line. If that is not happening, then you need to consider playing without the ornaments, or really working on structuring it so that it does work.


3) Keep the Ornament in the Appropriate Musical Period

Number three is (and I am guilty of not always heeding this one) is obeying the style from the period that the piece was written in.  This means that you probably don’t want a big, frilly baroque ornament in your Latin piece.

The basic rule on these is that from mid – Beethoven, which is about 1800 and before, ornaments fall on the beat, and are approached from the scale tone above. This generally includes baroque, Renaissance, and some classical pieces.

After 1800, they frequently fall before the beat, and phrase to the beat. I like these the best, personally. And these bring us to number four.


4) Structure the rhythm within the preceding beat

Number four is that, let’s grab a staff, we have this note, leading to this note, and there is an ornament over this second note or some grace notes. What it looks like on the pages that the ornament falls with the second notes. That this is where the ornament is when in actuality it’s really part of the preceding note.

So we would actually play it within the beat of the first note, such as, instead of a quarter note, it becomes a dotted eighth note with 2 32nd notes, or however many notes are in the ornament. Perhaps a triplet. So the ornament is actually structured into the rhythm, and the main note is still on its own, on the beat.

So these then lead to the beat as opposed to being connected with the ornamented note. We think of it as coming from the preceding note. The ornament is now, in effect, a way to get from one note to the next note. Not as a dressing of the second note.

It’s actually now a mechanism to get into the second note. And so when we’re doing that, we can rewrite the ornament as (for example) an eighth note and a 16th note triplet, which puts the ornament in time. So we actually structure the ornament, Using however many notes we have in the ornament.


5) The first note is a Long-Short

The next rule,  number five, is that the first note of the ornament is a long – short. This means that we decrescendo to the first note of the ornament. And then the rest of the notes crescendo to the next beat.

This way the ornament moves out of the preceding beat toward the beat that the ornament is written over. This is a long-short. If you do not know about the long short, I will put a link to another video explaining it here.

If you’d like to explore some really well-written ornaments, you should check out Busoni. He wrote out a lot of ornaments and was really tasteful and really worked out some really great and musical ornaments. He transcribed a lot of Bach, and others, and was an Incredible individual and an incredible musician. So if you want to look at some really good ornament writing, check out some of his piano transcriptions and look at the way he handles things.


6) Rolled Chords are Ornaments

rolled chord

Lastly, we have rolled chords. We oftentimes see a chord written with the big squiggly line next to it. We have this a lot in guitar music. We just have a rolled chord of some sort. And so it’s typical to put this on the beat, and just play it however.  Just throw in there.

Many guitarists don’t actually think about rolled chords as a guitar ornament. But really, they are. So depending on what note you want to roll to, especially if there is a melody note in the rolled chord, the question is whether or not the note is part of a line.

If at least one of the notes can connect to a line, it adds interest to the rolled chord. So then instead of actually just playing it all at one time, what if we structure the roll, just like the other ornaments we just spoke about?

So if the chord was four notes, we would put three of the notes as an ornament before the fourth, As a triplet. If there are five notes in the chord, then four of the notes would form the ornament as 32nd notes or 64th notes. We could also, as before, make the first note a long-short, if we wanted to. So this is just a different way of handling rolls chords that can really make them more beautiful.

Rolled chords out of order

Order of Notes in Rolled Chord

One more note on rolled chords, is that, because of logistics, Or if you would just like to do it, you can change the order that the notes are played. Just because you have a squiggly arrow pointing up, does not mean that you have to play the notes in order from bottom to top.

What you can do instead, if you need to, if you could phrase better this way, is something like this: play the bass note second instead of first. Or any other order that works. You can switch the order up a bit.

This can be very beautiful on slow-rolled chords.  Pianists do this a lot. If they have a rolled chord with notes In both hands, or a spread out chord they will not necessarily play bottom to top. The bass note can drop in at a different point.

You can mess with that and see what becomes the most beautiful. This is really effective if you have some sort of weird fingering that you have to get to, like having a note hold, or a difficult shift and have to get to a new position it can actually be easier and more legato to start the roll with the interior note.

You can play with the order that you roll your chords. But I do think that structuring them and deciding exactly how they fall within the rhythm, is a great way to actually add more structure, more beauty to your playing.

Great, so if you would like to, you’re welcome to subscribe to this channel, and watch these other videos on these types of things.    But more importantly, thank you so much for watching. Take care.

Also, Wikipedia has some reading on ornaments at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ornament_(music).

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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