I know that music from the baroque era was composed with the assumption that performers would add their own embellishments (when viable, not for canons or fugues). I've also heard that Mozart didn't write out all details, but assumed that the performer would realize the music on his own.

I have two questions regarding this: For which music should I not do this? Does this practice end at Beethoven's era? I've heard that it was over by Wagner's time. I just want to know which music is considered incomplete without further creativity by the performer(s), and which is not.

My second question is: Do all roles get to do this, or only continuo? Because if all roles get to add stuff, then I, as a harpsichordist, have to be much more careful with what I add in addition to the written notes. If, however, I know exactly what every one else will be playing, then I can more confidently come up with my own parts, knowing that they will work harmonically and contrapuntally with the rest of the music. If every role got to add, then I'd personally only do it to chord based music, while sticking to chord tones. If only I got to add, then I'd do it to any music in a way that maintains counterpoint, and which doesn't add dissonance.

Edit: Naturally, I will add what I think sounds good, or add naught at all if that's what I prefer. I am not asking for artistic guidance. What I wonder about is the intention of the composer. During which time period was the written score considered the complete and final music? When did the norm of realizing the music in one's own way end?

  • Shoot, based on the tags, I don't think we can answer with jazz-based answers.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 6, 2018 at 0:18
  • 1
    @Dekkadeci - yes, we can. Jazz existed in those early days - it just wasn't called 'jazz'.
    – Tim
    Jul 6, 2018 at 6:45

3 Answers 3


I once owned a little manual on ornamentation, written in the first half of the 20th century, that in the introductory remarks offered some horror stories of excessive ornamentation. Mostly singers (and they still do it, listen to any pop diva) but I was struck by the Victorian trombonist who reportedly presented the majestic introduction to Mozart's 'Tuba Mirum' obscured by excessive rubato and melodic embellishment.

Yes, it's pretty accepted that a continuo player would do more than just strum out the chords. And we're told that a repeated section in a baroque keyboard piece would have been considered incomplete without some extemporized variation or embellishment. Although there's little room for variation in a Beethoven symphony, I sometimes wonder whether, when performing his piano solo works, he like the jazzman 'never played it the same way once'.

Styles change. We maybe worship the notation a little TOO much today. Although it irrites me, the audience seems to like what Whitney Houston did to 'I will always love you'. Where there's room for embellishment (and ONLY where there's room) give it a try. Be prepared for criticism if you do it in post-Baroque (and pre-jazz) music though :-)


First off, I think there is no should or shouldn’t.

Also, I think pop and jazz musicians can inspire us to understand that it’s lots of fun adding your own bit to the music. I think most composers in those days did. If people complained about obscuring the music, it means it mist have happened enough to irritate this person enough to spend time and paper on it.

Ultimately, improvisation is fun and not playing things the same way is much more challenging then repeating the same interpretation all the time. So experiment, I would say. Try what you like, and try it a few times because the first few ornamentations in Beethoven symphonies or Bach cantatas may feel sacrilegious, and the next few plain wrong, and then maybe just bad etc.

You might be interested in my ensemble. We do lots of improvisation coming from the baroque corner, but also we have a few teaching videos.

  • 1
    Beethoven "(spent) time and paper on" writing out cadenzas for some of his concertos--something which was previously unheard of. He probably figured people had "(obscured his) music" often enough in that case.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 6, 2018 at 14:04
  • Unless he did it to help some performer who couldn't figure out what to play. That's a possibility.
    – Hagel
    Jul 8, 2018 at 5:29

In my personal opinion you can feel good about embellishing any piece of music. I think the situation is not one of does the style allow for it but whether your job allows for it.

What I mean by that is, it would not be advisable to improvise or embellish your lines if you are the 8th seat in the second violin section and you are performing Mahler's 4th (a personal favorite of mine). But if you are a solo performer or soloist with a backing group the sky is the limit (tastefulness being a consideration).

I used to think that classical was meant to be played as written in a "strict" sense. But that isn't really true. In classical guitar music for example it is expected that one will add embellishments (and many instructors teach how to do this).

If you are asking what is allowed or not allowed there may not be an answer. Music is art and in reality anything is allowed. If you asking what is expected again this is somewhat subjective. If you are asking how ti do it I'd say listen to recorded versions of music played by different soloists and follow the sheet music to see where embellishments are used and what type.

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