Audio: embellishment (0:14)

Figure: embellishment

embellishment plays embellishments on a piano in the key of C. The embellishment figure shows the score:

  • Bars 1-4: a passing note sandwiched between two chord notes that are a third apart:
    • A passing note can be unaccented (bars 1 and 2) or accented (bars 3 and 4).
    • A passing note can be diatonic (bars 1 and 3) or chromatic (bars 2 and 4).
  • Bars 5-8: an auxiliary note, or neighbour note, a step away from two chord notes with the same pitch:
    • An upper auxiliary note is a step up and a lower auxiliary note is a step down.
    • An auxiliary note can be unaccented (bars 5 and 6) or accented (bars 7 and 8).
    • An auxiliary note can be diatonic (bars 5 and 7) or chromatic (bars 6 and 8).
  • Bars 9-10: anticipation results in the note of the second chord being played early:
    • Bar 9: approached by step down.
    • Bar 10: approached by step up.
  • Bars 11-12: suspension, the opposite of anticipation, results in the note of the second chord being played late:
    • Bar 11: resolved by step down.
    • Bar 12: resolved by step up.
  • Bar 13: an escape note is unaccented and is approached by step from a note in the first chord followed by a leap in the opposite direction to the note in the second chord.
  • Bar 14: a pedal note is a sustained note held throughout a chord progression in which at least one of the chords is dissonant. It is often the lowest pitched note in the chord progression.

An embellishment is a nonchord note, a note that is not part of a chord.

Embellishment provides a role for melody notes that do not form part of a chord. Technically, embellishment is the process of adding one or more notes to a piece of music that are not part of the prevailing triad or dominant seventh. In more general terms, embellishment is harmonic decoration, the equivalent of an ornament in melody.

Not all notes between chords are embellishments. An arpeggio, for example, is not an embellishment because it contains chord notes.

The terminology of embellishment and ornament, more varied than most in music, baffles more than it illuminates. The meaning of passing note, neighbour note, anticipation, suspension, escape note and pedal is not intuitively obvious. Combine these terms with the ornamental terms of acciaccatura, appoggiatura, turn, mordent and trill and the jargon becomes a morass of technobabble. How has this situation arisen?

One reason is that the music profession, like any profession, has its share of specialist jargon. It helps to have a lexicon to work from, especially in musical analysis, that explains harmony and melody. The terms used to describe ornament and embellishment have been around a long time and are reasonably well understood by the initiated.

There is a deeper reason behind embellishment jargon. Implicit in the jargon is the notion that some notes are more important than others. This strand of thinking underpins functional harmony. Occasionally, the notion is made explicit, such as using the phrase, nonessential note, instead of nonchord note. More often, it is implicit and needs teasing out. In functional harmony a note in a triad is deemed more important than a note that is not. A note in a triad is an essential note, because functional harmony is based on the triad. A note that is not part of a triad is a nonessential note, an embellishment. Since there are only three notes in a triad, the remaining nine notes in the chromatic scale are all embellishments. The complexity of embellishment jargon is the direct result of trying to relate the function of nine nonchord notes to the three chord notes in a triad.