Musical Ornaments: How to Execute a Turn

By Edward Ellsworth Hipsher

The turn is one of those ornaments that was born in the age of filigree music in Italy – that age which as not been and probably never will be surpassed in production of really enchanting almost intoxicating melody – the melody created for the sheer beauty of melody itself. In that age was brought into existence practically all the “embellishments” now used for the variation and ornamentation of themes, certainly all those that are employed to give melody lightness and grace.

Thus it is we find ourselves going back to the “Language of Song” for the roots, if not the entire structure, of the names applied to these graces. And a little study of the ancestry of these words will be of more use than mere amusement of the inquisitive faculty of human kind.

In the Italian we find the word “gruppo” paralleling in meaning our own English “group.” Again “etto” added to an Italian word is an ending indicating diminution of the force of the word. Thus “grupetto” (a small group) became the name recognized by the musical world for this graceful ornament, to distinguish it from the more elaborate roulades of scales and arpeggios in vogue. In the English speaking world this term is now almost displaced by the word “turn,” in reality very apt, as the ornament truly does turn around its principal note.

Of all the embellishments, none is more graceful and refined than the turn nicely executed. Placed between notes, it has the quality of lifting and carrying one tone of the melody on to the next with an elegance not quite approached by the other. So for a time let us see what can be learned about it that will help us to use it at its greatest value.

The “Turn” proper consists of four tones. First is the principal tone or home tone. Above this is the “upper auxiliary tone.” This is usually the diatonic or regular tone of the key to which the principal note belongs. Any variation from this must be indicated by a proper character placed above the sign of the turn; thus, et1. Below the principal tone is the “lower auxiliary tone.” This is almost invariably a half step below the principal tone. This, if not diatonic, is usually indicated by a proper accidental under the sign of the turn.

Even when the sign is wanting, one is commonly safe in supplying it and using the half step. An exception to this is when the upper auxiliary is but a half step above the principal tone. In this case the ear must be largely the guide. If both auxiliary tones are but a half step distant from the principal tone, they produce a diminished third. If executed very rapidly, the ear does not readily assimilate these tones, especially if the lower if foreign to the key. Thus it becomes somewhat a matter of musical discrimination.

If the turn must be done very quickly, it usually is better not to alter the lower auxiliary tone; if it is done more deliberately, generally it is better to alter the lower tone to a half step below the principal one. Another exception is when the turn immediately followed by a diatonic tone on the same degree as the lower auxiliary tone, when ordinarily it is better not to alter the pitch of this auxiliary. The shifting of tonality from the altered to the diatonic tonality of this note will be assimilated comfortably by the ear only if the time of the turn is very deliberate.

A good example of this, and one probably known to more of our readers than any other, occurs in the Principle Subject of the “Air Suisse” of Clementi’s Sonata, Op. 36, No. 5.


Parenthetically, we might pause just for a moment to consider this matter. Take all these and similar groups at their own designation. We call them “ornaments” or “embellishments.” Now but a second thought is necessary to impress upon one how necessary is the most careful execution of them. They are there for but one purpose – to beautify the melody. They are the “trimmings.” Have you never passed on the street of dress of which the accessories were so out of harmony that they made it little less than hideous? And yet the materials of the dress and its simple outlines were elegant, possible extremely so. Just so it is with a melody. Its ornaments must be so smoothly done, so exquisitely, so carefully in keeping with its nature, that they enhance rather than detract from its beauty. Otherwise, they would be much better omitted.

The turn may enter in a number of ways. It may introduce the note. In this case the turn will begin exactly on the beat of the principal note. It may come at the close of the note. And, as already intimated, the speed with which it must be executed has much to do with its contour.

The sign of the turn placed over a note indicates that it will introduce the note. In this case the turn will begin exactly on the beat of the principal note; its first tone will sound exactly with any notes which accompany the principal one, regardless of their being on the same staff or another; and it will be executed after one of the following models.

If the principal note is of convenient length – for instance, a quarter or even an eighth note in a slow or moderate movement – or if it should be a long note in a very quick movement; and if it is desired that this note shall have particular emphases then the turn will consist of three very rapid notes, beginning with the upper auxiliary, taking as little time as possible from the principal note on which the stress will fall, and will be executed lightly as a triplet.


This sort of turn is falling into disuse among modern composers. The classic writers, having only the spinet, harpsichord and earliest forms of piano, all of which were very deficient in the dynamic attack of tone, used it often for the purpose of emphasis on a certain important tone. With our modern instruments we are able to secure all this stress we may desire, by other and more direct means.

When the principal note happens to be quite short, then its entire time will be given to the turn which will consist of either four or five notes very even in time. Haydn was very fond of this light, graceful form which abounds even in so serious a work as his “Creation.” Where the allotted time makes it practicable, the turn of five notes is usually given preference over that of four, as it has the advantage of beginning of the group as well as allowing it to appear three times. Also, when the turn is to be done rather leisurely the five notes form is often chosen because of its added grace.


Most graceful, most varied and most elegant of its forms is the one following the principal note. IF this be rather short, most often the turn will use one half of its time. When the longer, the principal note will be sustained till near the end, yielding just enough of its time to allow the turn to be neatly and beautifully done. Even austere Wagner fell a victim to its charms. On a plain note this turn will consists of four even tones beginning on the upper auxiliary.


When falling at the end of a rather long note, even as in the Wagner quotation, just how near the close it shall come and how rapidly it shall be executed will depend much on the nature of the music, and here the artistic judgment of the performer must be exercised.

An exception appears in this form when the principal note happens to be followed by one of on the same pitch. Then the turn becomes a triplet consisting of the upper auxiliary, the following note taking the place of the one usually completing the turn.


Most sparkling of all, loved by the light hearted Mozart and inherited by Beethoven for his music in the brighter humor, is the turn following a dotted note and leading on to one on a different pitch and contemplating the beat or part of beat begun by the dot. In this case the rhythm becomes completely changed. The principal note is taken for half the time represented by it alone; the first three notes of the turn form a triplet equaling in time the principal note just executed; and the last note of the turn has just the time represented by the dot, thus balancing in time the note which is to follow it and these two notes making a pair of two tones even in length.


Sometimes the notation is misleading, and even the best composers have been at times careless in this matter. In the Adagio of Mozart’s Sonata in F we find


which, though written as on the lower two staves, by all the Mozart and classic traditions certainly would have the melody executed as on the upper of the three staves.

A rather curious and interesting exception occurs in the Adagio of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. Here, in spite of the fact that it follows the regular model of rhythm (the dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth, represented here by two thirty second notes), the turn waits and enters as four even one hundred and twenty eighth notes on the last half of the third sixteenth note in the bass.


The time being here so slow, this effect is really quite elegant. Played according to the set rule, the turn would move so very slowly that it would be slovenly instead of increasing the beauty of the passage. Thus does genius look at rules and smile – but not without good reason.

So far all the turns have been treated in their regular form. Any of the may be inverted; that is, they may begin on the lower instead of the upper auxiliary tone. This is indicated by placing the sign in perpendicular position, thus et10. Now they will be executed in this manner.


Grace notes are frequently used in the place of the sign of the turn, as in the following from Mozart.


This is especially true when, as in this instance, the quick inverted turn is desired at the beginning of a note.

Modern composers very often write out the turns just as they wish them to be played. Thus we frequently find them as an integral part of the text where in the old masters they are indicated by signs or grace notes.

Two, or even three, notes may have turns on them at the same time, but this involves no new rules, each tone will follow the same patter as it if stood alone, and they are quite sure to be alike.

Thus we see that the turn is capable of about as many twists as the inevitable triangle of the popular novels. And like them it is quite as sure of a happy ending.