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Since my performance experience is mostly in music after 1850, and since my instrument (tuba) very rarely has any grace notes, I've been mixed up for some time on how to play grace notes in different musical eras.

Specifically, how are grace notes played differently when they're written in the Classical style versus being written in the Romantic? (Perhaps the dichotomy isn't fair and is much more nuanced than that.) What about a composer like Beethoven, who straddles the two eras? And is there a similar rule for modern music, or does it vary by composer?

Different types of grace notes and Grace notes in Minuet by Boccherini both come close to the answer, but neither discuss the specific distinction I'm looking for.

I'm asking about grace notes for all instruments and for all historical eras. Ultimately the question is this:

Given a sheet of music with an acciaccatura and/or appoggiatura, how do I know when to play them on the beat compared to off the beat? If it's an issue of when in history the piece was written, what are these guidelines?

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  • A thought-provoking question. +1. Including all sorts of grace notes will produce a hefty tome rather than a concise answer!
    – Tim
    Mar 29, 2018 at 8:09

2 Answers 2

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There is no universal agreement on this topic. While there may be a general consensus, you can always find a scholar arguing the opposite view.

The standard ornaments in the practice of Mozart and Haydn can be derived from the earlier, larger Baroque repertoire. Leopold Mozart and C. P. E. Bach are standard sources here. The general consensus today is to start all ornaments on the beat, except perhaps the acciaccatura which is so short that distinguishing is difficult. More often than not this is carried forward into Beethoven as well. For example, Arrau's edition recommends this practice. Broadly speaking, the generation before him is most likely to be heard beginning ornaments before the beat. Czerny Op. 500 is a useful source here.

The interpretation of the acciaccatura is fairly consistent through time, the appoggiatura less so. The length it absorbs from the following note in the Romantic occurrences that spring to mind is very much at the performer's discretion. On the other hand, its notation in Mozart and Haydn is more grammatical. Finding a small quaver appoggiatura preceding a crotchet, typically one would simply play two quavers, likely with a small extra "leaning" accent.

The 19th century saw the appearance of a large number of primers with something to say about this topic. The general view was that appoggiaturas begin on the beat. It is of course hard to tell how closely these texts reflect the contemporary performance practice.

In response to a comment that an acciaccatura is distinguished by a stroke through the note: this is the general view but the picture is more complex than that. The forceful keyboard acciaccatura and the short appoggiatura in music for various instruments have both been notated with the stroke, in the latter case to distinguish it from the long appoggiatura.

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  • Just for completeness: acciaccatura is notated by a slash through the stem of the grace note.
    – guidot
    Mar 29, 2018 at 6:59
  • Interestingly, or perhaps annoyingly, I have seen sheet music in which a theme is written once as two eighth notes but later on as a grace-note + quarter note. I don't know whether to blame the composer or the typesetter. Mar 29, 2018 at 13:57
  • If it was an Urtext edition, it might simply be a fastidious rendering of inconsistency on the part of the composer. Also, if I were pressed on what the difference might be between two eights and a quarter with an appoggiatura, I'd say that the appoggiatura has overt stylistic meaning, and would emphasize the grace heavily and lighten on its resolution. Sep 9, 2021 at 15:56
  • In addition to the composer and period, you can also take into account the style of a particular piece--does it evoke something outside the piece itself, and does this helps you decide on ornament execution? For example, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all wrote works in the "Turkish" style characterized, among other things, by many acciaccaturas.
    – DjinTonic
    Sep 9, 2021 at 16:23
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In addition to user48353's excellent answer, I'd like to add: We want to target our historical knowledge as narrowly as possible to the composer (or even the piece!). Don't settle for acquiring one rule for music 1600-1750, another for 1750-1825, etc. If the composer wrote about ornamentation, like CPE Bach, read that. If not, check contemporary treatises. For well-known pieces, the execution of the graces might even have a written reception history. Unfortunately, ornamentation has always been a field plagued by gnostic systems of arcane symbols, but the conclusion doesn't always have to be to shrug and do whatever we want. The first question is always "what did the composer mean?"

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