The difference between the symbols of a mordent and a trill is just a tiny vertical bar. Sometimes it could be misread when the print is blurred or too small. Is there a general rule, from the context, when each is used, so one can guess it right? I was thinking, maybe if the next note is higher, then it's probably a mordent; if the next note is lower, then it's probably a trill? But does it have to do with the previous note, too?

e.g. I mistook the following to be a trill when it's a mordent. My other question: for this one (G minor), should the mordent be played as F E F or F Eb F?

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4 Answers 4


Regarding whether context can help differentiate between a trill and a mordent, one thing to consider is that a mordent (or short trill) has the effect of emphasizing the primary note, while a (full) trill extends it.

As far as upper versus lower mordent, based only on context and not on any marking, I would near always use a lower mordent, with the exception the if the ornamented note came in the midst of a stepwise descent — i.e., three notes descending stepwise — I would likely use an upper mordent.

In the stepwise descent case, the upper mordent reinforces the descent by visiting both the preceding and succeeding notes. In most other cases, the higher pitch in an upper mordent tends to draw the ear, diminishing the effect of the ornament in highlighting the primary note.

To your question about F Eb F versus F E F, the general rule is to stay within the key signature unless otherwise indicated.

  • What about differentiating between upper and lower mordents from the context? Jul 8, 2022 at 5:39
  • @GrandAdagio I've updated the post to reflect my sense of upper vs. lower.
    – Aaron
    Jul 8, 2022 at 6:01
  • Thank you Aaron. One more question: these are not hard set rules, correct? In other words there are cases when a given note in a given context could have the mordent either way (lower/upper)? Jul 8, 2022 at 6:50
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    @GrandAdagio That's right. These are my own guidelines and just a starting point for developing an interpretation of any particular piece of music. I'm not aware of any set rules for ornamentation, which, historically, was based on "good taste".
    – Aaron
    Jul 8, 2022 at 14:49

I think you mean there's only a tiny difference between an upper and a lower mordent, don't you? That's true.

It is hard to see, but it's a lower mordent, so you might play F Eb F.

In baroque music mordents of both kinds might begin on the unwritten note. So in your example you might play Eb F Eb F. An upper mordent sign can also indicate a short trill, by the way.

I keep saying 'might' because it's not known precisely what each composer intended. If you want to pursue the subject in depth The Interpretation of Music by Thurston Dart might be a good place to start. It may tell you if there's a 'general rule, from the context, when each is used.'

If the piece is by Bach an answer (of mine) to a similar question contains links to the guide to ornaments he wrote for his son Wilhelm Friedemann.

  • I thought upper mordent=trill? The example is, indeed, Bach's Minuet in G Minor (Anh. 115). I saw a video on youtube where someone played it as F E F instead of F Eb F. Jul 17, 2020 at 2:21
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    Yes. Sorry. That can happen too! Unfortunately Bach doesn't mention it. So I guess you can either copy the video, or read the Dart book, or exercise your taste and judgement. Or you could do as I do and play whichever is easiest! Jul 17, 2020 at 3:55
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    I also think music is a kind of playing ;) Jul 17, 2020 at 4:25
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    I need to remember that... I'm math oriented and so can be pedantic :) Jul 17, 2020 at 4:53

The term you have to research is ornament (trill, mordent, praller): the trill = upper changing note, mordent = lower changing note.

Here‘s the result of my google research:

enter image description here In the free downloadable editions of Bach‘s keyboard music the ornaments and their performance in the time of the composer are described in the foreword.

The use and performance of the ornaments (up or down, semi tone or whole, short or longer trill) has been changed in different epoques, eras, generations, regions, styles, countries.

Your first point: questioning for a rule ... this can depend of the movement in the melody, (preceeding interval, position in the piece, mood and fingerset of the performer... I sometimes decide in the last second about ornamentations or don‘t decide at all and just let the fingers play what they want.


The difference between an upper and lower mordent is the little line. Notation for an extended trill is quite different.

Now, how to interpret the mordent signs in different styles and eras of music is a whole study in itself!

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