Proceedings of the Known World Dance Symposium 2007

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Ornamenting Dance Music

Stephen Bloch
(M. John Elys)

I. Terminology & evidence

Ornamentation: based on an existing melody; preserves the basic outlines of the melody. Related terms divisions, diminutions, passages (subdividing into shorter notes); graces (embellishments applied to single notes). Numerous treatises in 16th-18th centuries; became less common as composers started writing out exactly what ornaments they wanted. Essential in 15c basse-dance music (unless you can dance to a series of whole notes!). Essential part of every instrumentalist’s training; valuable for singers too, but necessary only for top-ranked singers.

Countermelody: making up a new melody (which may or may not be ornamented) to be sung/played along with existing melody; related terms descant, fauxbourdon, gimel, counterpoint. Treatises from 15th & 16th centuries; became less common as composers in Baroque era wrote out all the parts. Principles inherited by Fux, Luther, Bach, etc. Usually described in terms of singing, but applicable to instrumental music too.

Improvisation: creates a new melody, perhaps following a pre-set repeat structure, or harmonic pattern, or duration, or returning to a pre-set refrain. Not much written evidence, except written-out pieces (e.g. estampies, saltarelli) that “feel” like they originated as improvisations. Apparently more common in Middle Ages than Renaissance.

In this class we’ll concentrate more on ornamentation than on the other two.

II. Sources

A. Primary Sources (chronological order)

Lionel Powers, treatise on counterpoint, early 15th c, in Meech, “Three Musical Treatises in English from a Fifteenth-Century Manuscript”, Speculum X.3, July 1935. Gives rules for up to 4-voice counterpoint from one written line.

Various basse-dance settings, mid-15th century. Most are just a series of whole notes, but a few have written-out ornaments, and others have ornamented countermelodies, which we can use as evidence of practice. See editions:

Crane, Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth Century Basse Danse, 1968;

Jackman, Fifteenth Century Basse Dances, 1964;

Marrocco, Inventory of 15th Century Bassedanze, Balli & Balletti, 1981;

Smith, Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music, 1995.

Tinctoris, Liber de arte contrapuncti, late 15th c. Rules for multi-voice counterpoint.

Sylvestro Ganassi, Opera Intitulata Fontegara, 1535. Rules and hundreds of patterns for divisions on various melodic intervals.

Adrian Petit Coclico, Compendium musices, 1552

Diego Ortiz, Tratado de glosas sobre clausulas..., 1553. Rules and hundreds of patterns for divisions on various melodic intervals.

Hermann Finck, Practica musica, 1556

Anonymous Scotsman (Judson Maynard, ed.) “Heir Beginnis Countering”, 1580, in JAMS 20 (1967): 182-196. Unusual in that it describes a method of simultaneously producing a countermelody and dividing it.

Girolamo dalla Casa, Il vero modo de diminuir, 1584

Giovanni Bassano, Ricercare, Passaggi et Cadentie, 1585

Lodovico Zacconi, Prattica di musica, 1592

Giovanni Luca Conforto, Breve et facile maniera d’essercitare ad ogni scolaro...a far passaggi, 1593

Jacob van Eyck, Der Fluyten Lusthof, 1646

B. Secondary Sources (alphabetical order)

Lewis Reece Baratz, “Fifteenth-Century Improvisation, Take Two: Building a Vocabulary of Embellishments”, in American Recorder, June 1990. Discusses both countermelody and a (reconstructed) collection of 15th-c. division patterns.

Howard Mayer Brown, Embellishing 16th-century Music, 1976.

Ross Duffin, ed, A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music, 2000. In particular, chap. 34 “Ornamentation & Improvisation Before 1300” by Margriet Tindemans, chap. 35 “Ornamentation & Improvisation After 1300” by Ralf Mattes, chap. 36 “Gamut, Solmization, & Modes” by William Mahrt, and chap. 37 “Musica Ficta” by Lucy Cross.

Timothy McGee, ed, Improvisation in the Arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, 2003

Elizabeth Phillips & John-Paul Christopher Jackson, Performing Medieval and Renaissance Music: an Introductory Guide, 1986.

Ken Wollitz, The Recorder Book, 1966, 1982

III. General practical considerations

A. Art Music vs. Dance Music

·         Art music: can afford some rubato; can make melody almost unrecognizable

·         Dance music: keep the beat! “High points” of melody should be recognizable

B. Ensemble issues

·         Don’t have two parts ornamenting at the same time, or you’ll get nasty dissonances (unless they can read one another’s minds)

·         Agree in advance on who’s ornamenting when

·         Top voice most common place for ornamentation;
next is bottom voice; inner voices seldom ornamented

·         May want to have one person play unaltered melody while another ornaments it

C. Instrument considerations

·         Instruments without articulation (e.g. bagpipe) need ornaments to separate one note from the next

·         Instruments without volume control (e.g. bagpipe, harpsichord) need ornaments to emphasize the important notes

·         Instruments without sustain (e.g. lute, harp) need ornaments to make long notes audible

IV. Kinds of Ornaments

A. Subdividing a long note into repeated notes

15th century: evidence from dance music (e.g. Colonnese, Legiadra, Rostiboli Gioioso); suggests performance on sustain-challenged plucked strings

B. Graces/agréments (ornamenting a single note)

15th century

Evidence from keyboard music, which has a lot of “tremolo”/”mordent” (see 16c)

16th century

“tremolo”/”mordent”: a trill between main note and an upper or lower neighbor (by a 2nd or occasionally a 3rd); replaces the first half or less of the main note


“groppo”: cadential trill between final note and lower neighbor, often ending with a dip to the 3rd below

cadential trill

Various others, less common & less standardized              

17th century

Developed in tremendous detail, with specialized names for dozens of different types

In my experience, a brief mordent is the most useful in dance music, to emphasize a strong beat. Longer trills aren’t very useful, but a cadential formula such as a groppo can help tell the dancers that you’re stopping and they should reverence.

Try some of these on the following examples:

Example: Belle Qui

belle qui

Example: Joyessance


C. Divisions/passaggi (ornamenting the motion from one note to another)

Often organized by pattern of 2-3 original notes

“Turn” around destination note:

Ganassi unison turns

Ganassi M2 turns(Ganassi)

beaulte de castille turn

(Beaulté de Castille)

Fill in intervals:

Ganassi P4 fillsGanassi -P5 fills


danse de Cleves fill

(Danse de Cleves)

“back step”, especially on descending scales

Ganassi backsteps zoomed

Notes an octave apart are often interchangeable:

Ganassi octave swaps

Don’t have to hit every note of original melody, but first & last notes of passage should be unaltered, like the first two examples below (but not the third):

Ganassi first-and-last

Ganassi says the last interval of the division should be the same as the last interval of the original passage, as in the first two examples above. There are exceptions: if the original passage is a second, you can go beyond it, and if the original passage ends with a leap, you can “fill in” the interval before applying this rule:

Ganassi exceptions

Rhythm (examples from Ganassi):

Straight subdivisions

Ganassi straight subdivisions


Ganassi syncopation


Ganassi tuplets lunacy

Ganassi gets a little ridiculous.

Try some examples: Belle qui, Joyessance, your favorite Playford, this "mystery" bassedanse….

roti boli

Ornamentation varies over time: 15th-century, 16th-century, 17th-century ornaments are all somewhat different, as are different 16th-century Italian authors… but turns, fills, and backsteps are nearly universal.

V. Countermelody

·         Based on an existing, usually simple, melody or cantus – often a plainchant, secular chanson, or basse-dance tenor (which may come from a chanson)

·         Lots of rules for what’s acceptable, originating in 15th or 16th centuries and repeated in 17th & 18th-c. counterpoint treatises, on which Baroque, Classical, & Romantic composers were trained

·         Know the allowable intervals. “Perfect” intervals are unison, 4th, 5th, and the same up or down octaves. In England, 3, 5, 6 above cantus (as well as 8, 10, 12, 13, 15 above, and 3, 4, 6 below). On Continent, 3rds and 6ths were considered dissonant until 15th century. Note no 4ths above the cantus (in later treatises, it becomes “no 4ths above the bass”).

·         Motion of parts relative to one another

o    parallel: both moving up, or both moving down

o    contrary: one moving up while other moves down

o    oblique: one moving up or down while other stays

o    No parallel motion on the same perfect interval

o    “Leap” (more than a 3rd) should be followed by step in opposite direction

o    etc. etc. See any modern counterpoint textbook, e.g. Walter Piston, based on Johann Fux, based on Palestrina, based on....