An ornament is defined as something decorative used to enhance the appearance of something else. However, don’t worry - we’re not about to start debating the finer points of that exquisite pair of Belgian ceramic cats on your grandmother’s mantelpiece.
An ornament in the musical sense is simply a small, at least moderately flamboyant flourish intended to make an existing melodic line more interesting.
Ornaments hark back to the days before the piano was invented, when the keyboard instruments that existed - such wonders of mechanical engineering as the clavichord and the harpsichord - were capable of producing very little in the way of sustain. Because their sounds were generated by plucked strings, they tended to have a sharp attack and a relatively short decay, so playing long notes was impossible.
To compensate, the composers of the time started to embellish melodies with brief flourishes that filled the space left when a note had died out prematurely. Over time, these flourishes became standardised so that they could be represented on a musical score by specific symbols, telling the performer exactly what to play when they occurred.
Fast keyboard trills are almost always much easier to play on a monophonic synth sound as you don’t have to play all the notes - you can pinch a leaf out of the guitarist’s book and do a sort of ‘hammer-on’ technique, holding the base note down and rapidly tapping the trill note. Every time you release the trill note, the monophonic sound reverts back to the base note until you hit the trill note again. It sounds like you’re trilling between two notes, but you’re really just playing one while holding the other one down.
It’s all in the mind
Some 20 years ago, a psychologist conducted an experiment, asking subjects to identify pieces of music that set off a physical reaction such as tears or goosebumps. Of the 20 most popular choices, 18 were found to contain appoggiaturas. So clearly, if you want to write a goosebump-inducing melody that reduces listeners to weeping wreckage, work in a minor key and pack it with appoggiaturas.
Although ornamentals are firmly rooted in classical music, they do still have their place in blues, rock, jazz, contemporary and mainstream material, too.
We'll run through some of the more essential classical ornaments and how they work, then show you how they can be used to spice up a lead synth part. Don your powdered wig and check out the video.
Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding, Need Your Love (opens in new tab)
Calvin Harris fill his tunes with theoretically-sound parts that can’t be ignored. This time, the alternating notes played by the little synth sound halfway through the verses of this summer dancefloor smash are almost too slow to be called a trill, but technically that’s what they are, as they alternate between a lower and upper note one semitone apart.
It’s about as fine a contemporary example of a keyboard trill as you’ll get.
Adele, Someone Like You (opens in new tab)
Ornaments are not necessarily limited to instrumental parts - they can be applied to vocal melodies, too.
Check out Adele’s stunning vocal on this heartfelt ballad that all but brought the country to its knees when she performed it live at the 2011 Brit Awards. Liberally sprinkled with appoggiaturas.