C# and Db are one and the same, as shown in the first measure of the example. If you trill the two, as seen in the second measure, you'd expect the two trills to be the same. However, a trill is played by rapidly alternating between the root note and the note directly above it in that key. For C#, it would be D (assuming C Major), and for Db, it would be E. I've expanded the trills as it seems they should be played in the third and fourth measures. Example

This doesn't make sense to me as the two root notes are the same. Do I have it right, or is there some rule that I'm not aware of concerning trilled notes?

  • Is this purely theoretical or from a real piece? I'd never expect to see a C# and Db side by side, nevermind with trills.
    – user28
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 18:59
  • It's theoretical. I only put the them side by side to show the difference.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 19:37
  • @MatthewRead Not necessarily just theoretical. Schubert liked to do things like this. Commented Aug 19, 2012 at 23:00
  • In general, if there's any confusion about what the upper note of a trill should be, it's clarified by a small accidental next to the trill symbol. Thus, in this context, to explicitly indicate what you've written, the trill symbols would probably have natural signs next to them. Commented Jun 1, 2013 at 21:09

4 Answers 4


You're mostly spot-on with your analysis, but you miss something critically important: the two notes are not the same. They are enharmonic, but they are different notes.

Assuming the context of C major, C will trill to its adjacent note, D, and D will trill to its adjacent note, E. Accidentals applied to the base note do not affect the note that is trilled. Thus a C# will still trill to D, and a Db will still trill to an E.


I'm no expert, but trill marks and other kinds of ornaments were interpreted differently in different times during the history of Western music. At certain times in history, notably in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, there were opportunities for the performer to improvise at such marks.

How to play it, therefore, depends on what instrument you are playing, the historical context of the piece you are playing, and ultimately, how much liberty you or your conductor are willing to take with the markings. This will require some research on your part if you want to play it in its proper historical context.

  • I'm more asking about the theoretical issue, not historical context.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 12:51

Just to muddy the waters a bit, I think we are assuming equal temperament. That's safe if we are playing the above line on a piano (fretted guitar, etc. etc.) but if we are singing the line or playing it on an instrument without (or with fewer) mechanical tuning limitations like a violin then we needn't have C# and Db as the same pitch.

That doesn't really help us play the line since having C# next to Db in a piece in C major (or A minor) suggests we've left expected tonality behind and so choosing a key and a temperament would be tricky. One thing we could do however is to assume that by juxtaposing the two notes the composer wanted to accent their qualities and so we could pitch C# at slightly higher than an equal tempered C# and pitch Db slightly lower than an equal tempered Db.

Such a tuning would just affect the notes themselves though. I agree with Kevin Hart's answer above that the trills in the second bar/measure should go C# <-> D and Db <-> E


On paper theyre different, but lets face it - comparing C# and Db is a battle of keys, not notes. Key of Db major, Db trills to Eb. Key of C# major, C# trills to D#. Different, but sonically identical. Thats not a thorough answer, but enharmonics can be a pain and took me a while to process because of its seemingly pointless redundancy and technicalities. But one question, why do you have to trill diatoncally? An out of key note is acceptable if it lands correctly. Using examples above, C# trill to D, Db trill to Ebb. If its a flavor you think fits, screw the rules.

Then again, I could be wrong on everything.

  • 4
    Playing a Db doesn't mean the key becomes Db. You need to find/assume a key and then interpret the two trills within that key.
    – user28
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 20:22
  • 1
    Compare a piano vs violin to see where enharmonic qualities may be interpreted in an actual pitch shift.
    – filzilla
    Commented Mar 14, 2012 at 20:23
  • 2
    I think this answer can be improved by saying: C# and Db are reliable indications that different scales are being used, and you trill using the adjacent note in that scale. Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 10:37

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