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What Are Trills In Music?

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Music Gateway Team


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If you listen to music from the Baroque period or even music from during the Classical era, you might see the form of musical ornamentation where performers swiftly alternate between two notes. This technique, which persists into the modern day, is known as a musical trill. A music trill is possibly one of the most common musical embellishments and sounds amazing when done correctly!

For those who are not sure about what trills are and how to play it accurately, this is the article for you! This article will describe what a trill in music is, as well as how to write a trill. 

What Are Music Trills?

A trill – formerly known as a shake – is a popular musical ornament that entails a rapid alternation from one note to another, often adjacent notes. In many cases, the alteration occurs between the note specified by the music trill and the next (upper) note of the scale. Many composers will use trills to add rhythmic and melodic appeal to the music passage.

How To Write A Trill In Music

The trill or ‘shake’ symbol indicates that the musician should alternate between the principal note and the auxiliary note rapidly and repeatedly. There are two different symbols for trills that will be seen in modern music.

Usually, composers indicate a music trill by writing the letters “tr” straight above the principle note. Occasionally, the “tr” is accompanied by a wavy line. A trill notation can sometimes comprise of a wavy line only without the “tr” sign at all!

Within traditional music theory, the principal note of a trill shows on the musical staff; the higher note of the trill is presumed to be the next note in the diatonic scale within the key signature. A half-step music trill can add chromaticism which defies the key signature of the musical piece. If a chromatic trill will not fit the key signature, composers sometimes include an accidental (a flat or a sharp) next to a trill sign. In order to make their intentions completely clear, the composer may just specify the musical trill as sixteenth notes or thirty-second notes on the musical staff.

An exampleof atrill is in ‘L’isle Joyeuse’ by Claude Debussy. This piece from the impressionist era starts on an extremely distinct trill. In actual fact, it has quite a number of trills! As a trill is noticed, consider the impact the music trill gives to the piece and why the composer may have chosen to include it.

What Note Does A Trill Start On?

As mentioned, the symbol for a trill is to write the letters ‘tr’ above a note however when it comes to writing and playing trills, there are a few rules to follow. They depend on the context of the music that you’re playing though and are not universal.

The general rules these days are:

  • Begin the trill on the principal note
  • End the trill on the principal note

This is an incredibly frequent question and one many musicians and music enthusiasts find perplexing. These days trills usually start on the principal note, however, if the music was written prior to 1800 it is likely a trill would start on the note higher. Here is the straightforward answer:

Prior To The 1800s (Baroque & Classical Eras):

The music trill began on the note higher to the one indicated by the trill. For instance, if the note “E” was marked by a trill, it would start the trill on note “F”.

Sometimes trills will end with a turn going to the note lower to the principal note however it depends on the context of the music played because that will regularly establish which conventions should be followed.

There are so many pieces of fabulous music using trills, so, why not listen to a piece by Debussy? His work includes trills extensively at the start of many pieces.

Subsequent To The 1800s (Romantic Era To Modern Day):

The trill starts on the identical note that is indicated by the music trill. If the note “E” is stated by a trill, begin the trill on “E” as well. As the trills should always end on the principal note, it’s extremely common to insert a triplet to the last notes.

Trill vs. Mordent

The key variation between trills and mordents is in the number of alternations between the adjacent notes. With mordents, the note should alternate just once between the principal note (the note symbolized by the mordent) and either the upper note (mordent) or lower note (inverted mordent). With trills, the number of alternations is extended, although the precise number usually depends on the rhythm as well as the musician’s personal style.

A mordent is often described as the short trill; this adds to the confusion between the two terms. There are two distinctions of mordents – the mordent which is known as “upper mordent” fluctuates with the note above, while the inverted mordent (known as “lower mordent”) fluctuates with the note below. Music trills alternate between the higher note, but with mordents, it could be both the higher or lower note.

There are plenty of types of ornaments one can come across when playing or reading music. With regards to music theory, there is a couple more common ornaments one should familiarize themself with (as well as a trill and mordent):

  • Turns
  • Acciaccaturas
  • Appoggiaturas

How To Play Music Trills

If playing a trill for the very first time, try to focus on being precise rather than the speed. Instead of trilling sixteenth notes, how about attempting a trill – which is quarter notes. This will be allowed one to enhance speed over time. Music trills are not only for singing musicians are able to play trills with different instruments, but here is also how:


When playing the piano, trills can be played using any two fingers – usually, your strongest fingers are your second and third fingers, this tends to work best. Quickly alternating between the two notes of the music trill, finishing on the principle note.

Strings And Woodwinds:

To effectively create a trill on a woodwind or string instrument, it is required to use fingers. Anchor the playing fingers on the lower note of a music trill, and subsequently rapidly tap the higher note on the fingerboard of a string instrument or on specific keys of a woodwind instrument. Begin slowly and put emphasis on accuracy and precision.

Fretted Instruments:

Using a fretted instrument such as a guitar or electric bass, the music trill technique is able to be accomplished with a mixture of a “hammer-on” and a “pull-off.” This consists of fretting a string with the index finger, then allowing another finger, typically the middle finger or ring finger, to jump off the fretboard and produce a trill one step higher than the main note. As with other music trill techniques, the most important thing is to practice gradually and precisely and slowly increase the speed over time.

Most musicians will typically just perform a music trill when sheet music indicates it, but many others will add trills to show off their artistic expression, much as they might add an appoggiatura. Baroque music players usually exaggerate music with a trill, with the consideration that all music requires at least some improvisation.

That Was Our Guide To Music Trills!

When beginning to learn an instrument, it may be frustrating learning ornaments because there are so many versions – which can be confusing! To help get to grips with them, we have concisely covered everything about music trills: what they are, how they’re used, and how to write and play them.

Professional musicians are bound to come across plenty of trills during their playing. Therefore, we hope that this feature will help give an improved understanding of this popular musical ornamentation. Take the time to practice to perfect trills and to make a trill sound nice and sharp!

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