…embellish a tune?

For several years now, I’’ve heard hammered dulcimer players talk about wanting to “embellish” a tune.  In a survey I conducted for the purpose of targeting a future book project, I asked what embellishment means.  Twenty-eight dulcimer players shared their thoughts.

What may be surprising to readers of this article is that most of the definitions the participants submitted described anything but embellishment.  When one person included in his definition, “…some dulcimer players seem to use the term ‘grace note’ to mean almost any notes filling in between the main melody notes,” well, it seems high time to establish what embellishment is, and what it is not.  (Ditto for grace notes!)

I went to The Harvard Dictionary of Music (1970 edition) for its take on the subject.  Embellishment appears there, but cross-references to ornamentation (hmmm…).  After hunting down ornamentation and a few more mildly related terms, I found these, whose definitions I’’ve paraphrased to make them a little easier to understand:

Ornamentation: Decoration applied to single notes (trills, turns, mordents, grace notes, appoggiaturas (—appoggiaturas?).

Extemporization: Variations on a theme, created by adding or removing both harmonic and non-harmonic tones between the existing notes within the original tune.

Improvisation: The art of performing music spontaneously without the aid of manuscript sketches, or memory.  (For a good time, see also penillion, a Welsh term that’’s probably not pronounced the way it looks.)

Using the above terms/definitions as parameters, and tossing out embellishment altogether, ornaments were specifically mentioned by ten of the 28 survey participants using these related terms:

flourishes (runs), grace notes, mordents, trills, turns, flams, rolls
(the last two terms are limited to percussion, and used decoratively on the hammered dulcimer)

All the other music terms appearing in their definitions fell under these core categories:




rhythmic variation

elements of music

bass notes

bass notes
adding 3rd or 5th of chord
double stop
countermelody (really
descant or obbligato)

adding notes between the
melody notes
removing melody notes
variations on a theme

(just one of many terms that weren’t also mentioned)

(again, two of many terms that fit here but weren’t mentioned)

Embellishment can’’t mean all of that, can it?
Let’’s see how all of the the terms in the above chart fare in pictures.   Below, I’’ve devised a variety of ways to interpret (ah, there’’s a good term, too) the first phrase of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in G major, explaining each interpretation:

  • When you play the tune by itself, you play the melody.

  • Play the tune loud, then soft (shown by and respectively below), and you play the tune with dynamics.

  • Accent selected beats, and you play the tune with accents.  (That’’s kinda simple, isn’t it?!)

          on beats 1 and 3:

          on beats 2 and 4:

  • Play the tune with harmony notes under it in the same rhythm, you: 1) harmonize the tune; 2) play double stops.

  • Add harmony notes over the tune in the same rhythm, you: 1) harmonize the tune; 2) play a descant; 3) play double stops.

  • Play the melody and strike the root tone only at each chord change, and you: 1) harmonize the tune; 2) play a bass line under the tune; 3) play double stops; 4) accompany the tune.

  • Add chords to beats 1 and 3 and you: 1) chord the tune; 2) harmonize the tune; 3) accompany the tune.

  • Play D below the starting note G on beats 1 and 3, and you: 1) accompany the tune with a drone; 2) harmonize the tune; 3) play double stops.

  • Change each melody note to a “bum-diddy” rhythm, and you play a rhythmic variation of the tune.  In this version, the tune is twice as slow as the above versions.  (The notes at “*” only sound when the tune continues, not at the end.)

  • Play the D below G after each melody note and you: 1) accompany the tune with a drone; 2) harmonize the tune; 3) play a variation on a theme.

  • Amplify the tune with three-note arpeggios (and not quite arpeggios), and you: 1) create a variation on a theme (note the change in “Twinkle’s” rhythm, shown by up stems); 2) harmonize the tune; 3) chord the tune; 4) accompany the tune.

  • Play mostly neighboring notes after each melody note (which means you’’ll play 8th notes), and you extemporize the melody (it’s a little tricky to recognize, but it’’s there); 2) play a variation on a theme.

  • How about an improvisation?  In this next example, the melody notes (if we could see them) would last twice as long as those in the first example (showing melody only).  The melody barely appears here (only the placement of the first note on both the first and last lines match the original tune), but when played over ““Twinkle’’s”” chord progression, the ear somehow deciphers the melody despite all the notes.

  • Subdivide each melody note by three (notice the meter change from 4/4 to 6/8) and you: 1) create a rhythmic variation; 2: extemporize the tune; 3) play a variation on a theme.

  • Precede most of the melody notes with grace notes, and you have ornamented, or embellished, the tune.

And lest I forget:

  • When you extend the sound of each half note by playing a two-stroke roll on beat 2, you have “filled the tune in”.  (The rolled note at “*” only plays when the tune continues, not at its end.)

So you see, a multitude of terms more accurately describe what has been lumped into the embellishment camp.  And when it comes to conversing with musicians (it will happen some day, for those who think it won’’t), this wide assortment of more specific terms will serve to avoid confusion and ambiguity.

Finally, I quote these definitions of embellishment verbatim  from the survey, and supply my own comments after each:

  1. “[Embellishment is] something to be regarded with caution: Are we adding it for beauty or to say, ‘Hey, look what I can do.  Isn’’t it wonderful?’’  There’’s a fine line between beauty and ego trip where embellishment is concerned.”—”  While the point of improvising is to demonstrate a musician’’s virtuosity rather than an ego trip, good taste (stylistically and/or according to the period of music) still prevails.  And ultimately, beauty always remains in the ear of the beholder.
  2. “Not letting the instrument just sit and ring.”—”  What’’s wrong with that?  I do it all the time!  To hear two good examples of ringing strings, listen to ““Amazing Grace”” and ““Wondrous Love”” on Thus Sings My SoulSometimes there’’s no finer, more beautiful sound than hearing sustained string tones speak for themselves.  Why do we have to pull so far away from what the dulcimer’ does naturally?  It’’s okay to bask in just plain long sound.  See my article elsewhere in Beyond the Blog for a workshop I teach on this subject.
  3. ““I don’t know, either.”—’”  Nuff said!

©2004 Lucille Reilly. All rights reserved.  No part of this article may be reproduced for distribution in any format without prior permission.  This article was published in November 2004.

Back to Beyond the Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.