Since my performance experience is mostly in music after 1850, and since my instrument 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.

Edit: I'm asking about grace notes for all instruments. 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?

  • I have posted a preliminary, general answer with the assumption that you're thinking chiefly of appoggiatura and acciaccatura ornaments, as these are more likely to be notated with "grace notes". If you are including turns and trills as well, I can update accordingly. – user48353 Mar 29 '18 at 4:52
  • And what is your instrument? Or are you asking about grace notes for any instrument? – Tim Mar 29 '18 at 7:11
  • A thought-provoking question. +1. Including all sorts of grace notes will produce a hefty tome rather than a concise answer! – Tim Mar 29 '18 at 8:09

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.

  • Just for completeness: acciaccatura is notated by a slash through the stem of the grace note. – guidot Mar 29 '18 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. – Carl Witthoft Mar 29 '18 at 13:57

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