Just What Is Embellishment?
by Lucille Reilly
For several years now, I’ve heard hammered dulcimer players talk about wanting
to “embellish” a tune. In
a survey I conducted for the purpose of targeting a future book
project, I asked what embellishment means.
Twenty-eight dulcimer players shared their thoughts.
What may be surprising to readers of this article is that most
of the definitions the participants submitted described anything but embellishment.
When one person included in his definition, “…some
dulcimer players seem to use the term ‘grace note’ to mean almost any notes
filling in between the main melody notes,” well, it seemed high time to establish what embellishment is, and
what it is
not. (Ditto for grace notes!)
I went to The Harvard Dictionary of
Music (1970 edition) for its take on the subject. Embellishment
appears there, but cross-references to ornamentation (hmmm...).
After hunting down ornamentation and a few more mildly related terms, I
found these, whose definitions I’ve paraphrased to make them a little easier to understand:
Ornamentation: decoration applied to single notes (trills,
turns, mordents, grace notes, appoggiaturas—appoggiaturas?).
Extemporization: variations on a theme, created by adding or
removing both harmonic and non-harmonic tones between the existing notes within the original
The art of performing music spontaneously without the aid of manuscript
sketches, or memory. (For a good
time, see also penillion, a Welsh term that’s probably not pronounced
the way it looks.)
Using the above terms/definitions as parameters, and tossing out embellishment
altogether, ornaments were specifically mentioned by ten of the 28 survey participants
using these related terms:
flourishes (runs), grace notes, mordents,
trills, turns, flams, rolls
(the last two terms are limited to percussion, and used decoratively
on the hammered dulcimer)
All the other music terms appearing in their definitions fell under these core categories:
adding 3rd or 5th of chord
descant or obbligato)
adding notes between the
removing melody notes
variations on a theme
(just one of many terms that weren’t also mentioned)
two of many terms that fit here but weren’t mentioned)
Embellishment can’t mean all of
that, now, can it?
Let’s see how all of the the terms in the above chart fare in
pictures. Below, I’ve devised a variety of ways
to interpret (ah, there’s a good term, too) the first phrase of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in G major,
explaining each interpretation:
on beats 1 and 3:
on beats 2 and 4:
Change each melody note to a “bum-diddy” rhythm, and you
play a rhythmic variation of the tune. In this version,
the tune is twice as slow as the above versions. (The notes at “*”
only sound when the tune continues, not at the end.)
the tune with three-note arpeggios (and not quite arpeggios), and you: 1)
create a variation on a theme (note the change in “Twinkle’s”
rhythm, shown by up stems); 2) harmonize the
tune; 3) chord the tune; 4) accompany the tune.
mostly neighboring notes after each melody note (which means you’ll play 8th
and you extemporize the melody (it’s a little tricky to recognize,
but it’s there); 2) play a variation on a
about an improvisation? In this next example, the melody notes (if
we could see them) would last twice as long as those in the first example
(showing melody only). The melody barely appears here (only the
placement of the first note on both the first and last lines match the
original tune), but when
played over “Twinkle’s”
chord progression, the ear somehow deciphers the melody despite all the
most of the melody notes with grace notes, and you have ornamented, or embellished,
And lest I forget:
So you see, a multitude of terms more accurately
describe what has been lumped into the embellishment camp. And when it
comes to conversing with musicians (it will happen some day, for those who think
it won’t), this wide assortment of more specific terms serves to avoid
confusion and ambiguity.
Finally, I quote these definitions of embellishment verbatim
from the survey, and supply my
own comments after each:
“[Embellishment is] something to be regarded with caution: Are we
adding it for beauty or to say ‘Hey, look what I can do.
Isn’t it wonderful?’ There’s
a fine line between beauty and ego trip where embellishment is concerned.”—While
the point of improvising is to demonstrate a musician’s virtuosity rather than
an ego trip, good taste
(stylistically and/or according to the period of music) still prevails.
And ultimately, beauty always remains in the ear of the beholder.
“Not letting the instrument just sit and ring.”—What’s wrong
about that? I do it all the time! (To hear two good examples of ringing
strings, listen to “Amazing Grace” and “Wondrous Love” on Thus Sings My Soul.)
there’s no finer, more beautiful sound than hearing sustained tones speak for
themselves. Why do we have to pull
so far from what the dulcimer’s does naturally? It’s okay to bask in just
plain sound. See my article elsewhere on this web site for a
teach on this subject.
3. “I don’t know, either.”—’Nuff
©2004 Lucille Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of
this article may be reproduced for distribution in any format without prior
permission. This article was published in November 2004.
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