The Trill and Its Proper Execution

By Dr. Hugo Riemann

The trill (shake) is the most important of the embellishments. It is indicated by (tr), with or without an appended wave-like line, for example, the trill in the Adagio of Beethoven’s Sonata in G major (Op. 14, 1):


The trill begins on the note for which it is required (the note immediately over or under the trill sign) and continues as a rapid and regular alternation of this note (known as the principal note) and the note next above, which is known as the auxiliary note. This auxiliary note always conforms to the key signature, that is it is the next note above in the scale of the piece you are playing. Hence, as our example is in the key of C, and the principle note is C, the auxiliary note would be D, a whole step above C. If the trill had been upon E, the auxiliary note would have been one half step above E. If the key of the piece had been different, let us say A flat, with four flats, and the trill on C the auxiliary note would have been D flat, one half step above C, but the next note above in the scale of A flat.

The rapidity of the trill depends upon the rapidity of the tempo of the piece and upon the technical capabilities of the performer. In all cases the alternation must be regular and the number of notes made proportionate to the number of time units indicated by the principal note. In the case of this example from Beethoven a moderate degree of rapidity is advisable, namely four thirty-seconds to each eighth note of the accompaniment.


The amateur can wholly ignore the old rule that a trill must begin on the auxiliary note. When the modern composer desires this form of trill he writes a short appoggiatura. This short appoggiatura, sometimes called acciaccatura, is a small note with a stroke through its hook, at the beginning of the trill. This expedient is also employed in modern editions of the classics. When the trill is to begin on the auxiliary note, as shown by the short appoggiatura, instead of the first two auxiliary notes, it is best to play three (a triplet). Our example above is thus simplified, and begins as follows:


When a trill is required for a note of short value it is best to play a triplet instead of a single note, and so make only one alternation between the principal note and its auxiliary, as, for example, in measure 25 of the Finale to Beethoven’s Sontata Op. 2, III:


A trill must always end on the principal note, except when some form of “after-note” (nachschlag) is shown by small notes, written at its close, for instance:


At the present time such passages are more usually written in the following manner:


Because, after one has become accustomed to the regular use of the after-notes of the trill it is an easy matter to fall into the error either of reading the small notes falsely or else of supposing some mistake on the part of the printer.

The normal after-note to a trill is written in small notes at the close of the trill (the same as in our first example), and calls for a single alternation of the principal note and its auxiliary note below, therefore, for a trill upon C, a conclusion by means of an after-note would be B C. But let it be remembered that, as a rule, the written principal note is played on the accented parts of the measure, and, therefore, upon the several eighths or sixteenths, respectively; and, furthermore, that the fifth note from the end of the trill should be the first note of a triplet, while the last five notes, divided into three notes and two notes, respectively, make the proper ending with an after-note. This may be exemplified as follows:


In this way the after-note is made much clearer.

It may be stated that, as a rule, every long trill has an after-note, even though it be not indicated. But the after-note is incorrectly used when a note of short value follows the trill, as, for example:


And, in both of the instances in the fifth example given above.

Chain trills and leaping-trills, such as:


These only take an after-note at the close, that is, at the point where the chain ceases.

The less-qualified player is particularly cautioned when playing trills not to overdo the matter, and exceed his strength, but, as far as possible, without forcing himself, he should execute as many notes as he can do most conveniently, striving before all else to make his rendition perfectly smooth and wholly free from anything disturbing to the even flow of the tones.

A number of accidentals are used in connection with the sign (tr), and these always affect the one or the other of the auxiliary notes. For example:


A trill is never used in any interval other than a major or minor second. In the last instance in the above example the trill is upon B flat and C, and even though the accidental were omitted, C sharp would not be played. As after-note the under auxiliary note conforming to the key of the composition is always understood. In the following example, however, which is in D minor, with B flatted, the augmented second, C sharp and B flat, would be impossible. The after-note of the trill on C sharp would, therefore, demand a B natural, thus:


The double trill makes even higher demands upon the ability of the player than the simple trill, for the reason that the less advanced player may have to be satisfied with a trill in only one of the two voices, or else play both voices as a short, inverted mordent, called in German a pralltriller, for example:


In a great many cases, and especially in modern music, when the trill sign is written over notes of short value, it is also practical to play this as an inverted mordent, and often the inverted mordent is the ornament intended by the composer, as at the close of the Adagio movement in Beethoven’s C major Sonata, Op. 2 II: