As a trained musician, I think I have a reasonable ability to assess the skills of other musicians. Sometimes, I will watch a video of a live performance and see (in, say, an improvised solo or vocal run) a moment that strikes me as a mistake, and I suspect that the majority of trained musicians would agree. A note wasn't in tune, didn't fit with the chord, the rhythm was unclear, or the timbre was off.

But if I scroll into the comments, I'll see an argument like this:

  • It sounds like the guitarist got a little lost at 0:55. That note doesn't fit with the scale.

    • Actually, that was intentional.

    • But it sounds bad.

    • It's supposed to sound bad. That's what makes it expressive.

Indeed, out-of-tune notes, dragged/rushed phrasing, and playing "out" are valid musical devices that can have a powerful expressive effect. So, what is the difference between an expressive embellishment and a mistake?

In the case of any particular song, the line between these two will be a matter of opinion. There's no way to get inside the musician's head, so It's not a mistake if it was intentional isn't useful. Also, people have any number of nonmusical factors (e.g. being a fan of that band) that influence how charitably they will listen to the song in question. So It's not a mistake if it sounds good is just passing the buck.

But without touching these subjective issues, I believe we can agree on general criteria that distinguish mistakes from embellishments. Here are two examples, one crude and the other more nuanced:

  • It's not a mistake if the musician winks at the audience beforehand. Here, clearly, the "mistake" serves a humorous purpose. The Brad Paisley song "Make a Mistake With Me" uses this concept.
  • Playing the ♭5 over a minor chord in jazz is bluesy and nice; playing the ♭9 over a minor chord is generally a mistake. The melody of Jobim's "Corcovado" is an exception, but I'd still be comfortable with adopting this "rule" in the majority of cases.

Different genres have different conventions, so I welcome answers that focus on a single genre.

Additional questions to consider:

  • What are the nonmusical factors that affect how charitably we listen to music?

  • Does the concept of a mistake apply to improvised music in the first place?

  • Why is it useful to distinguish between mistakes and embellishments?

  • Can mistakes be further subcategorized?

  • 4
    To further muddy the water - if you do make a mistake, do it again, soon, and then again soon after. Then it's not a mistake. Credited to A.Jazzer. The hard part for me is re-creating that mistake as well as I did it first time...
    – Tim
    May 28, 2020 at 5:48
  • 1
    This scenario can't be allowed in classical music though. Can it?
    – Tim
    May 28, 2020 at 5:50
  • 3
    There is room for improvisation in classical music, though it doesn't take the form of "playing notes that aren't in the score." Classical performers make spontaneous choices about dynamics and phrasing, and I suppose a listener could find fault with such a choice even if it isn't technically in conflict with the written music. (And, of course, in the Baroque and Classical periods "actual" improvisation of cadenzas, accompaniment parts, and the like was common.)
    – Max
    May 28, 2020 at 6:04
  • Re: making the mistake again and again on purpose, you might find this video discussion of "the worst jazz solo of all time" interesting: youtube.com/watch?v=eSuK_5zW2iM Spoiler warning, but the thing that makes it bad is, in essence, the fact that the soloist doesn't bring the bravado needed to pull off the trick he attempts.
    – Max
    May 28, 2020 at 6:08
  • Classical Music you may get expressive but not really play notes that are not there in the sheet (except in Cadenzas) May 28, 2020 at 6:18

4 Answers 4


Something done with intent is an embellishment; something done by mistake is, well, a mistake. If that mistake leads to creativity (and there are numerous stories around of equipment failures and plain old mistakes leading to extraordinary creativity), it is the act of repeating the mistake that is the creative act.

Perhaps ‘embellishment’ should be replaced by ‘experiment’, because the moment you deviate from the exact rigid parameters of a score or a previous recording to try something different, you are experimenting and embellishing. If you are following strict harmonic and stylistic rules within the form and structure of the piece, Your embellishment is likely to be harmonically and stylistically correct. If you are pushing at the parameters of the form, you are taking a bit more of a risk, and the result may ‘work’ or not. There is of course a good deal of subjectivity in whether such creativity ‘works’ or not.

But the answer to the question is intent.

  • 1
    My question asks if we can (as listeners) distinguish between mistakes and embellishments given that we don't know the performer's intent. But +1 for the idea that embellishment is a form of experimentation.
    – Max
    May 28, 2020 at 6:52
  • 1
    @Max You might want to adjust the question title so it matches your intention.
    – gidds
    May 28, 2020 at 11:51

What constitutes a mistake in any area of life is an action that you didn't intend to perform or that produces an effect you didn't intend to produce. Intention is the key here. But that doesn't mean our situation is hopeless just because we're not mind-readers.

As far as we listeners know, everything the performer does is possibly a mistake, with probability between 0 and 1. How you assign that probability will depend on what you already know about the player and the norms of the musical culture. A pianist playing Mozart and changing one of the notes is likely to be a mistake, not an interpretive choice. A jazz sax player splitting a note is likely a mistake in a beginner, a choice when Coltrane does it.

So I think in the case of a specific performance, listeners familiar with the performer and the prevailing norms of their musical practice can probably identify mistakes with reasonable probabilities (in some cases, perhaps with near-certainty). But the less of this contextual information we have, the worse those probabilities get. This works in real life too: if you're in an unfamiliar situation and someone you know nothing about does something that seems weird to you, it will be harder to judge whether they made a mistake or not.

in short, your question has no answer because it isn't specific enough. It needs the addition of "...in this performance" plus a video / recording / etc.

(As an aside, there doesn't seem to me to be any relationship between "embellishment" and "mistake". mistakes aren't just "local" things like a fluffed note. It could be a mistake to rush the tempo of a piece, to play it in the wrong key or to not use enough dynamic range. I guess you could distinguish the general "mistake" from the more specific "momentary slip-up" or "technical lapse", but the intention of the performer is still the defining thing. This could be a partial answer to your last bullet point.)

  • As the saying goes "Play a wrong note once, it's an honest mistake, twice, it's incompetence, thrice, it's jazz!" May 28, 2020 at 15:00

What's the difference between an expressive embellishment and a mistake?

Well, chutzpah. It needs to serve a musical purpose in order to be expressive. Such a purpose can be constructed after the fact, by adapting the continuation to the mistake. But you have to have your facial features under control.

However, adapting the continuation to the mistake in a convincing manner requires a whole lot of control and skill, so it doesn't work for mistakes committed because you are at the limit of your capabilities.


The difference is the intention. Whether it's done on purpose or by accident.

There are happy accidents and there are less happy ones. But they're all still accidents! Similarly, there are intentional things that turn out to be a good idea, and those that don't.

That answers the letter of the question. But not, perhaps, its spirit. Yes, there's a tendency to glorify everything a favourite performer does, even when it's plainly a mistake that WASN'T worth repeating and turning into a virtue. I'd cite the famous trumpet solo in 'April in Paris' and, of course, the unfortunate Mr. Flanagan's valiant but doomed attempt at sight reading 'Giant Steps'. Even gods can stumble.

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