Ornaments, and the Seeming Length of Quarter Notes
August 21, 2019
A.B.’s lesson on 8/8/19
Prelude in Eb Minor, Book I.
Interpreting the rhythmic notation in this Prelude and its reliance on half note beats rather than quarter note beats.
In this Prelude the difference between the shortest duration notes and
the longest duration notes spans an unusually wide variety of
intermediate rhythmic values. The shortest duration note is the 32nd
note as in measure 38. The longest a dotted whole note in measure 40.
This wider than usual range may have been one factor in Bach’s choice
of half note beats rather than quarter note beats.
Historically, with the passage of the centuries, a note like the whole
evolved from being a note of relatively shorter duration on a clock to
a note of a longer duration on the clock. Reflecting this change is
the difference between the older name for a whole note, that of
“semibreve”, or half of a brief note, to whole note, which is more at
suggesting the nature of a “whole which is the sum of the parts”.
During this historical process, at no time, did a whole note equal
anything more or less than the duration of two half notes (assuming a
constant tempo). The RATIO of durations between rhythmic note values
(quarter to half, half to whole, whole to half, etc.) has always been
While this relative ratio never changed, the ‘absolute’ values of the
notes, on the clock, as the decades and centuries passed, underwent a
sort of slow continental drift, making the difference in absolute
values get further and further apart from each other, each note itself
becoming longer and longer. A note originally intended to portray a
subjectively short duration in consciousness, grew and grew in until in
our century it is usually meant to portray a much longer duration on
the clock. Other notes grew similarly, only they kept their fixed
ratio of duration when looked at from one to another.
A thirty-second note would not have even shown up on the chart at the
time when whole notes were ‘semi brief’, the thirty seconds lay beyond
the horizon, out of radar range, existing only mathematically in the
realm of possibility, perhaps coming to tangible existence sometime in
In addition to the whole note being called ‘semi’ (in the sense of shorter than) a ‘brief’ note, the following notes all had names that reflected the
fact that a various times each one in turn had a name suggesting
Whole note semibreve semi brief, shorter than a short note; half note minim the least or most minimal duration; eighth note quaver a quiver, single flutter of a bird’s wing; sixteenth note semi quaver less than the briefest flutter – almost undetectably short; thirty-second note demi-semi-quarter shorter than the shortest of the shortest
The original name for a quarter note, which was ‘crotchet’, had more
to do with its visual appearance than its subjective duration (possibly a “hooked” note – the hook I’m assuming being the stem).
Of course, all of this is varied by the ‘tempo’. No note, at any
historical time, had a fixed duration. A fast tempo would render, for
example, a sixteenth note, into a note of very short duration, while a
slow tempo will take the same sixteenth notes, and stretch its
One might imagine a line of notes from long to sixty-fourths, and
over the centuries the “Ancient of Days” acknowledges, or anoints,
first one than the next, with the epithet “you are the shortest of
notes in duration”.
With such a wide range of durational values to choose from, it is
sometimes difficult to maintain a single, even tempo through out the
piece, especially when rhythm switches back and forth from relatively
longer notes (whole notes and longer) to relatively short notes
(sixteenth notes and shorter).
Let us assume that as the pianist you are counting out loud while you
are playing this prelude, and your particular goal is to use the voice
to steady the tempo. One way in particular of defining this goal is
to say that no quarter note, anywhere in the piece, is longer or (in
particular) shorter than any other quarter note in the piece.
Many people encounter difficulties counting out loud and coordinating
the notes with the spoken counts. There is however one sure fire
principle to help things along. Be suspicious if you notice that your
voice momentarily fades out while playing. This is almost always a
sign that there is uncertainty about the rhythm at that moment. It
usually occurs when shifting to longer notes from shorter notes or vice
You need only to be aware enough of the sound of your voice to hear
that it is fading out or disappearing altogether. You can reliably
assume that these are the moments when your tempo has sped up or
When the rhythm in the prelude switches from sixteenth notes or
thirty-second notes abruptly to quarter notes or half notes, an almost
‘existential’ crisis may develop in the player’s mind. The quarter or
half notes seem to be unusually long, almost “too” long. They seem
naked and alone and want to cover up their full duration by a bit of
shortening. “No, these notes couldn’t possibly be meant to last as long as this”. The result, without usually being conscious of its happening, are that the longer notes speed up. In fact, the longer the pianist holds out the note, the faster an inward tension builds up urging the note to end so that the next note may start.*
It is like, in special relativity theory, the player’s local clock,
when traveling faster relative to another observer, goes through a
relativistic shift compared to the slower observer. To this observer
the notes seem to grow shorter and shorter, while to the pianist’s
observations are that no apparent change in duration has occurred.
What can the pianist do to ameliorate this situation? After all, it would be awkward to have a metronome loudly ticking on the piano when
performing the work.
There are several things that can be done by the pianist on a
subjective level to keep the tempo even. They share the common idea
of the longer notes being subdivided mentally into a string of shorter
When playing quarter notes, for example, sixteenth notes can be felt
to be pulsing inside the quarters. The outside observer may not hear
these separate sixteenths, but they are quite vivid to the performer,
so much so that the pianist can ‘hear’ the sixteenths as vividly as the
Here is one particular technique that I use at lessons. As soon as
you the pianist’s voice is about to loose its certainty in
enunciating the counting syllables, have the pianist try eliding,
that is, prolonging the sound of one syllable into the beginning of
An example. If, in a particular measure, the voice falters or fades
out, at just the time when the pianist is supposed to say the counts
“three and four and”, do as follows.
Change the word “three” into a series of three separate elongated
sounds (thhhhhh, rrrrrrr, and eeeeeee), Moreover, have each of the
each sound gradually morph into the next
(“thhhHHHH->rrrrRRR->eeeeEEE). And, if we prolong the “eeeeee” sound
right up to the boundary with the word “and”, then the entire third
beat becomes (voice-wise):
Doing this serves a double purpose. It makes the pianist more, rather
than less, aware of the sound of their voice when counting out loud.
Secondly, if a count is parceled out among a series of short duration, this system of counting and eliding allows the pianist to keep better track of when exactly each shorter note is supposed to begin and end.
What about ornaments. Should we add them in right from the start?
Every rhythm, whether or not that an ornament, can be reflected through a prism that will separate it into smaller component rhythms. each
component rhythm sheds light on the printed rhythm both musically and
in terms of physical ease of execution.
Let us take a banal example: four quarter notes.
Using these abbreviations:
w = whole note
.h = dotted half note
h = half note
q = quarter note
And by tying together certain of the quarter notes to others, we find
these rhythms ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.
h q q
q q h
and by subdividing certain of the quarter notes we find these rhythms
as well ‘inside’ the four quarter note rhythm.
e = eighth note
e e e e e e e e
h e e e e
e e e e h
Each has its own sense of pulse and emphasis. The ideal rendition of
the original rhythm (q q q q) would reflect the special properties of
each and every one of the sub rhythms.**
#2 Ornaments in particular:
The first thing to do is leave out the ornament entirely, Simply hold
out the single note out that the ornament is applied to. Hold it for
its full written value. This accustomed the body to the exact duration in which the various notes of the ornament will unwind through time plus any remaining duration of the main note. Adding in the notes of the ornament later, feels to the body like filling in a pre-made compartment of time.
The next step is to actually play the ornament without any rhythm to
it at all, or in effect, with every note of the ornament held for the
same duration as every other. And, at the same time, elongating that
common duration, so that the ornament will sound like a slow melody.
Expanding the ornament into a lyrical melody is related to what we
said above about rhythms containing rhythms, plus its reverse: that
smaller rhythms join or fuse together into larger rhythms (in our
case, until the ornament turns into one held note whose duration is
the sum of all the shorter notes plus the written note). Or to misquote a favorite satirical poem in biology and bacteriology books: big fleas have little fleas, and little fleas or littler flees, and so on to infinity.
As we proceed on towards playing the complete ornament, begin by
combining groups of notes in the ornament together into just one held note. Then stage by stage add in more of the details of the ornament. Each stage
nestles inside or embedded into the previous stage.
* Sometimes this anxiety increases exponentially with time rather than
** It is like the color of a star. It may be emitting light at many
different frequencies (or colors) but the predominant effect of all of
them together is a single color.