Debussy's Étude pour les agréments focuses on all those small symbols on a score that indicate some intent from the composer: accentuation marks, hairping (crescendi, decrescendi), pizzicati, appoggiaturas, rest commas, etc.

Do you usually read all of them and memorize them along with the notes without skimming a single one?

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    Your choice of Debussy for starting this discussion strikes me as ironic. 1) Debussy had great respect for Bach, Couperin and Rameau who made liberal use of ornament signs, and this piece is among other things a tribute to them. 2) Debussy was also the kind of composer who carefully proofreads the copies of its published music (he edited himself several ancient composer works for his french publisher, Durand), and he added a lot of dynamic and agogic indications in his own piano music. – ogerard Apr 28 '11 at 13:09
  • @ogerard : you misinterpret. I do not say nor suggest that ornaments are useless. I say that their quantity can sometimes be seen as a huge load and that the interpreter should maybe get the spirit of those ornaments rather than taking each one literally. – Benoit Apr 28 '11 at 13:28
  • sorry, there is some risk to misinterpret naked text. Two composers for which I would take ornaments very literally would be Beethoven and Liszt. The trouble is that many of them in their works are placed in the middle of fast notes or with fingers already busy on hold notes. They require careful fingering and practice. – ogerard Apr 28 '11 at 14:55
  • @ogerard: Probably you want to also include Schubert then. – Benoit Apr 30 '11 at 10:49

As a general rule of thumb, you should be including these. I can think of two things you should always keep in mind with ornaments:

They often were not written by the composer:
They are many cases where they were not written by the composer, but rather by the editor. If this is the case, it probably means (assuming a good editor) that these ornaments were normal for the time. If that is the case, it is generally okay not to play some and maybe add some (Generally good to be conservative with this in auditions though). The way you can find this out is to look at an original manuscript reproduction (many music libraries in universities have these for major composers).

When you play them, don't let them effect your rhythm:
Ornaments when played well flow naturally and do not effect the underlying rhythm. So basically, when you play something through without ornaments, the fundamental rhythms should be the same when you then add them.


Concerning ornaments (dynamic, expressive and tempo indications are a different case) I think you should try to look at them and train yourself to play them as they are written and by this I mean that you should train to

  • see them as very useful abbreviations, as composers do to write down their music faster

  • elements of style, that can be interpreted differently depending on the period, the instrument, your playing abilities

  • mnemonics that you can add or suppress at will at sight reading

  • elements of a language meant in certain case as tools for the virtuoso

  • know that their translation in term of precise music played by your fingers depends on the context. The speed of a turn or an ascent, and its proportion and position, especially for a long note is not always simple to decide. The decision to take into accounts preceding accidentals, check if some aspects of ornaments have been chosen by the editors.

So, you should be able to mentally say and execute: "I play this note with a turn, with a mordant, with a grupetto, ..." also look at a baroque piece with few or no ornaments and add some of them. In Bach French Suites and some of the editions of the Inventions, you can find ornamented and non-ornamented versions of some of the pieces. It is very profitable to look at them.

And if you plan to know really a piece, I would advise not to schedule their study to after you have already learnt the parts.

For staccato, and other toucher indications, this is something that I usually first study when I play the hands together. When I first try to play a piece, I use the most legato possible way as a first approach to fingering.

For tempo, volume and this kind of indication, I prefer not to memorize them first. I usually make a little sketch on paper or a mental map of where they are placed and I try to apply them in a second phase, marking places where I tend not to follow them, etc. This is a phase where I usually need to have people listen to my playing (teacher, family, myself by recording, etc.)


These are perhaps more important that the notes, in conveying what the composer wanted.

So definitely memorise them!

  • Thank you for this answer. Does that mean that in your daily practice, you will know by heart the position of all these ornaments on a complete score? – Benoit Apr 28 '11 at 11:25
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    @Benoit I don't think anyone would explicitly memorize them to that level, but rather just get in the habit of playing it that way. Playing without them would take more effort after a while. – user28 Apr 28 '11 at 13:21

Yes you can! That is as much part of the piece and everything else.

If something says pizzicato you should not use your bow to play it. You should memorize those specifications if and as much as you memorize the pitch and duration of each note.

A proper interpretation of a piece will try to take into account each and every information the composer included in the score. From pitch, rhythm, dynamics(volume, crescendo, decrescendo, forte, piano, etc.) to timbre (pizzicato and others) and sometimes there's even a metronome marking.

If the music you are performing is for your own enjoyment you are free to perform the music however you see fit and only to level you can reach technically, but keep in mind your audience. If you are auditioning for an orchestra for example, the jury will most likely expect the piece to be played as written.

Just keep in mind that while some of the markings are very specific like pitch (and even that depends on the tuning), a metronome marking (and even that one a conductor might decide to ignore if he feels the piece will sound better in a different way), others are more open to interpretation and are more relative like a forte or decrescendo.


As my father kept reminding me over and over: "There are no accidental pen strokes. Beethoven put that there for a reason." As you mention, those "small symbols...indicate some intent from the composer." IMHO, you should respect that intent.

  • This is not really what I am asking. It is not about the should or shouldn't, it is about how you manage them, whether people here all usually read all of them carefully. – Benoit Apr 28 '11 at 11:23

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