It seems like almost every piece with an ornament has some argument as to how it is supposed to be played. For example, in my Alfred's edition of Fantaisie-impromptu, the footnote claims that the ornaments in the middle section should be played as trills starting on the upper note. However, most performers play it as a mordant. Also in Beethoven's Pathetique, some people play the mordents evenly and some play it as a triplet.

What is the cause of all this confusion around ornaments?

4 Answers 4


There are a couple things I would note. Most Classical music is pre-recording technology, so we don't have any recordings of how it would have been played at the time, which would likely be the way the composer would have intended it. Because of this, we have to rely on the notation alone. The older the piece of music, the less standardized the notation practices of the time were. There were also some different standards for different regions, as travel wasn't as common and long distance communication was strictly letters.

You also have to consider that different editors can have an impact on what is being played. Sometimes they add or remove things from certain pieces, presumably in an attempt to live up to the composer's intentions. They are essentially imposing their interpretation of the music onto the score, so you're basically looking at a score that could be "wrong" sometimes. People who are familiar with the different publications of the same pieces will point out these differences and allow a more open debate about the "correct" interpretation.

The older the music, the less likely there will be agreement on how it should be interpreted, especially if it was "lost" for a period of time. Bach's music was famously rediscovered by Mendelssohn. It had been around 100 years since Bach's death before his music was rediscovered, so it was well removed from the traditions of baroque music, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. There are lots of people who dive into music history/musicology and attempt to get a better understanding of different periods, so we tend to see several different sorts of knowledge pools. Some people have a long teaching lineage, so they were taught/are teaching based on a tradition, potential as far back as the time period of the music they're playing. You could argue that those people would have the best insights/interpretations, however, you do have to consider the Telephone Game effect taking place here. The historians and musiciologists would derive their interpretations from research, potentially avoiding the Telephone Game phenomenon, but they're also forced to figure it all out from the writings they can find.

TL;DR: it's old music, we don't always have great references, and sometimes people have imposed their interpretations onto the music we read.

  • What you say anout Bach is concerning the Passion of St. Matthew but not all of his music but not the WTC, his Organ and Piano work. And right by his son CPE we have good information how ornamentation had to be played in his time. cpebach.org/pdfs/resources/Newsletter-Versuch-Mark.pdf ... de.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 5:30
  • Telephone game? Same as Chinese whispers?
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:12
  • @Tim - Yes, same thing. I always knew it as the telephone game myself but was aware of Chinese whispers and thought that may not be PC for this forum. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:50
  • @AlbrechtHügli - Interesting. I have heard many discuss the idea of Mendelssohn rediscovering Bach's work but never really hear any distinction as to what was rediscovered. This may be one of the many situations where we have a whole lot of people believing and reteaching an inaccurate story. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:52
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    Might have to check with CoC! No doubt we'll (I'll) be told in good time...
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:52

The confusion is caused by at least two reasons: much of performance practice was not notated precisely, and performance practice was not uniform.

  • 2
    Was not and don’t have to be uniform. This have never been the greatest artists who were asking how something has to be played. Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Lois Armstrong never performed a piece twice the same way. Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 15:29
  • @AlbrechtHügli Agreed. Music is not nor should it be fixed. Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 20:27
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    By definition, is not uniform. "[ornaments] provide added interest and variety, and give the performer the opportunity to add expressiveness to a song or piece." – Ornament (music)
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 0:44

Your questions suggests or implies that the art of art should always be the same in all times and everywhere but it’s just that the art of art has been changing and still changes everywhere and every time. So each artist has his own art to play any piece of art and some write it down like Quantz and C.P.E. Bach and now you can play a piece in the style of the art and kind of Chopin or Glenn Gold or Miles Davies or in the style and art of your own art, if others will follow you will be an artist yourself. There are always artists who want to make doctrine which art is the only perfect correct and true art to play something and that’s the way and art they are playing! We have the same appearance in religions and politics, sports and fashion. Here we call them leaders, Führer or gurus or trendsetters.


If you look at something like JS Bach's well know ornament table from the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach...

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...it would seem the matter is simply to execute what is on the chart.

But, if you look at treatises like...

...you will see the extent to which players were expected to extemporize. Players were expected to not only ornament but improvise. They were expected to know musical conventions and show good judgment. Scores were written with an expectation for the player to interpret. (To varying degrees and changing over time.) A player's musical taste was the measure, not merely executing an ornament as defined on a chart.

..the footnote claims that the ornaments in the middle section should be played as trills starting on the upper note. However, most performers play it as a mordant.

Whatever the case is there should be good reasons either technical or artistic for one choice or another.

If someone disputes another's choices and allows no room for alternatives, it can approach factionalism or dogma.

  • This is a very good point that was missed in my answer. A lot of people are unaware of how much improvisation was expected in the past. A whole lot of modern Classical players couldn't improvise to save their lives. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:15
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    @Basstickler, in the linked Google book for Quantz check out chapter XIII, it like a book of licks from the 18th century! Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:38
  • Wow, this very cool. Kind of falls into that realm of how difficult it can be to teach someone to improvise. Here are some licks for you to figure out what it all is and then be able to appropriately figure out what outside of that would work when you grow to that point. Happens a lot in Jazz instruction. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 18:57

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