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Years ago, my piano teacher taught me that a trill is when you play the note written and the note a half-step higher (for example, if the note was D, you would play E flat), alternating between them quickly.

Now, my band teacher is telling me that a trill is when you play the note written and the note next in the alphabetical scale (for example, if the note was D, you would play an E). However, if in the key signature that E (from the example) is an E FLAT, then you would "wiggle," as my band teacher described it, between those D and E flat.

Based on the descriptions above, which teacher is right?

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The trill or "shake" is initially performed between the note written and the note above it according to the key signature, subject to modifications by previous accidentals.

E.g. in E flat major a trill written over D will be between D and E flat, as your band teacher says, starting on D.

In some music it is conventional to start on the upper note, so in the example you'd start on E flat and alternate with D.

It's important, however, to consider how you are going to finish your trill. The convention (not always observed) is to combine the trill with a turn.

To develop your example, let's say you have that D with the "tr~~~" marking, in E flat major, and that the next written note is E flat. You'd then rapidly alternate between D and E flat as usual, starting on D (or starting on E flat if you prefer / if it suits the style), and then finish with the pattern E flat - D - C - D, ending up on the next written note (which is E flat in this example).

Sometimes it's not desirable to include the turn, particularly if the trill symbol has been used as a shorthand for a tremolando between two notes a step apart, as is often the case in modern arrangements. The inclusion of the turn is particularly desirable when the "trill" note is the leading note the prevailing scale and the note immediately after the trill is the tonic (as in our example).

Starting on the upper note: I often like to do that especially in Bach and often Mozart, Beethoven, and later composers. Mainly it's a matter of considering the context and understanding what the musical purpose of the ornament is within the context, and what will best achieve that musical purpose.

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Your band teacher is more accurate in most situations. In standard notation, a trill means you should alternate the written pitch with the note a step higher in the key. So in D major a trill on D would go to E natural but in Bb Major a trill on D would go to Eb. However, composers sometimes put an accidental above the trill symbol, which modifies the note you're trilling to. So, in D major, a trill on D means to alternate with E natural, but if there's a flat above the trill symbol you would alternate with Eb.

In a lot of 20th-century scores, composers will tell you that all trills should be half-step trills or whole-step trills sometimes, but that has to be specified. Otherwise it's unclear.

  • Weren't there some composers who felt trills should always start on the higher note? I have some vague memory that Chopin was adamant about this. – user6591 Oct 11 '15 at 23:10
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    Hmmm, yeah @user6591, there are various complexities like that with some composers. And now that you mention it, there were some pretty complicated contextual rules in the Baroque eras. I'm not on expert on period performance practice, but if someone has some sources I'd add to the answer. – Pat Muchmore Oct 11 '15 at 23:14

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