By Lars Rosager
When a musician chooses to perform a notated piece, the notation most often undergoes some sort of customization. I have alluded to how memorizing a piece of music may open the door to impromptu stylings in my previous blog article, “Bringing the Music Off the Page: Tips for Memorization.” Continuing from the discussion on memorization, I will introduce the beginning-to-intermediate music student to melodic embellishment. After reading this brief introduction, you will know enough to begin applying the basic concepts in your singing practice.
Though I will be working primarily from the standpoint of a vocalist accompanying himself or herself on the guitar, much of the information is entirely capable of being translated onto other instruments. The student must inquire into the various facets of the following rudiments defined below:
Tremolo: the rapid repetition of a single note, either in a measured or unmeasured rhythmic context.
Vibrato: etymologically described as a shaking note; a single note whose pitch repeatedly dips down slightly and returns to the original position. Vibrato can also be performed by raising the pitch, or with a combination of lowering and raising. In addition to altering the pitch, one may perform a fluctuation in volume. One possible approach here is to repeatedly soften the dynamic and return to the original strength.
Bend: the Western classical tradition often employs the terms portamento or, in jazz, glissando. On a basic level, the bend consists of an unbroken transition from one note to another.
Hammer-on: on the guitar, the hammer-on is performed by “hammering on” with the left hand from one fret to another. In a more inter-instrumental context, one may think of two notes joined together not by a sliding sound, but, rather, by simply playing one then the other in close temporal proximity. The articulation is typically considered to be light and legato. Guitarists will know the pull-off is a slightly different technique, but implies the same general effect. The pull-off is essentially a fretting-hand pluck.
Mordent: easily illustrated by a hammer-on followed by a pull-off. The mordent is a quick application of a neighbor tone of the main note. Most typically, beginning at any given main note, the note either a half- or whole-step above or below the main note will sound briefly before a return to the main note.
Trill: the rapid alternation between two notes.
Variations on these rudiments are certainly many. One useful bit of outlining is found in two simple distinctions. The first distinction, which applies to rudimentary as well as to compound ornaments, sets ornaments on a single note apart from ornaments that act as connectors between two notes. Of the above list of rudimentary ornaments, the tremolo, vibrato, mordent, and trill decorate a single note. The bend and hammer-on imply movement between two notes.
Secondly, one may set rudimentary ornaments apart from compound ornaments. This contrast lies in part between individual items from the list above and their combinations. To use a linguistic analogy, rudimentary ornaments are like morphemes, whereas compound ornaments are more like complete words.
The following musical examples will illustrate some basic applications of ornamentation. Two versions of the opening phrase of the well-known jazz ballad “My Funny Valentine,” composed by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, contrast the original melody with my own embellished version.
Example 1. “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart), mm. 1–8.
Example 2. The same excerpt, with ornamentation.
Example 2 follows the order of the list of rudimentary ornaments. The tremolo and vibrato markings are self-explanatory. “Gliss.” in measure 5 means the D and E-flat are connected in the manner of a bend. The slur marking connecting the A-flat to G in measure 6 signifies a legato articulation in the manner of a pull-off (see item 4 of the list). Instead of a single note held for two measures (see ex. 1, mm. 7–8), the first beat of measure 7 is embellished by a mordent, and the first beat of measure 8 by a trill. As is most often, but not always, the case, this trill should be performed between the notated pitch and its upper neighbor, here G and A-flat.
Many compound patterns on a single main note are comprised of various combinations of the techniques described in the preceding paragraph. For a basic example of compound patterns moving from one note to another, see the last two beats of both measure 7 and measure 8. For the sake of clarity, know that the first note of measure 9 of “My Funny Valentine” is an E-flat.
Here are some links to various interpretations of "My Funny Valentine":
Here is the link to the lead sheet:
For more on the topic of musical ornamentation, please don't hesitate to contact me on my Savvy profile.
Lars Rosager graduated from San Francisco State University in 2010 with bachelors degrees in Music (Jazz Guitar) and Spanish. This year, he put the finishing touches on his master’s thesis on the connections between Renaissance Humanism and the Spanish Guitar, the final project toward his completion of the degree Master of Arts in Music.
Lars also teaches voice and guitar lessons. Feel free to reach out to him on his Savvy profile about music lessons.