I got trills, they’re multiplying…

The trill can pose a number of issues for brass players, not only in terms of style and musicality, but also in terms of technique.

The approach to the trill, or shake as it was known from the 16th to 18th centuries, has changed over time and in order to fully understand how to interpret its use in the music you play, it is important to understand its function and the way it has been used within different musical eras.

The trill is usually shown in music with a tr sign above the note that is to be trilled.  There are always a number of options; do you trill from the note above or do you start on the note and trill up or down, or do you play it with a turn at the end and so on.

These questions can easily be answered by considering the composer and the era of music that they were written in.  We will refer to the different eras by name from this point, so just to make sure; here are the respective (and approximate dates) of each era:

  • Renaissance             1500 – 1650
  • Baroque                    1650 – 1750
  • Classical                   1750 – 1830
  • Romantic                 1830 – 1900
  • 20th Century           1900 – 2000
  • Modern                    2000 – current


Renaissance Trill

The trill began in the Renaissance era and consisted of a note, followed by the note above, alternating rapidly.  It is easiest to think of this as you would an extended inverted mordent.

This                           would be played like this: trill 1



(In the renaissance era a variety of specific symbols were used for different ornaments, but for clarity I will use only the modern day symbols.)  Please notice that the trill in the Renaissance era starts on the given note and goes to the upper note.

The cadential trill was used toward the end of the renaissance era and was referred to as a cadential pattern.  Here is a written out example of the most commonly used cadential pattern in Renaissance music:

trill 2 Baroque Trill

In the Baroque era, the trill became a very important ornament and was extensively used by composers to decorate a melody or add harmonic interest (this could be by creating a dissonance or a suspension) and as well as a cadential trill.  Because there are a number of very specific markings and directions for the different types of Baroque trill, this post will only deal with those that are commonly found.  Very often it is possible to check the composers intention by reading the pre-text, introduction or footnotes that are in the edition that you are using.  These normally exist to let you know that the convention expected is slightly different to the norm.

Generally speaking, if you are asked to trill in Baroque music it is conventionally correct to begin on the upper note and trill down to the written note.

This                          would be played like this: trill 3



You will normally trill using the notes in the key of the piece – this means that the upper note you use will be in the key of the piece.

If something different is required you will see that the composer will place an accidental above the tr. sign.  (An accidental would be a note that does not appear in the key and shown as a , , or ).

This                           would be played like this: trill 4



Generally speaking, the note that is written is known as the fundamental note.  This means it is the note that appears in the chord when the trill is being played.

A cadential trill would look, and then be played, like this:

trill 5

This strengthens the cadence and provides both melodic and harmonic interest using notes that are stepwise in movement.


Classical Trill

In the Classical era it is generally accepted that you start with the upper note, and depending on the context of where the trill is placed it may be correct to extend the length of the first note or the last note.

Like this:                                 or this:

trill 7trill 6



Mozart particularly used the cadential trill in his music.


Romantic Trill

In the Romantic era, it is usually considered correct to start the trill on the given note and then trill up to the note.

This                            would be played like this:

trill 8



Where exceptions exist, these are normally notated or explained on the score or in the introduction or preface depending on the edition that you are using.

20th Century and Modern Eras

During these eras it is normally considered correct to trill on the given note and go up to the next note, as would have been done in the Romantic era.  However, as the 20th Century progressed composers began to become more accurate and specific when notating their intentions.  This will mean that for music written during these eras it is a very good idea to double check the score, preface or any footnotes that exist for further clarification.

Technical issues

Some trills will be over a semitone or tone, and generally speaking it is more difficult to get real clarity when trilling over a tone.  This trill, for example, is generally difficult to produce accurately and in tune:

trill 9




The important thing to remember when playing a full tone trill like this is to keep the flow of air as regular as possible.  Keep the air moving through the instrument and allow the lips to alternate between the two notes freely.

Sometimes it is necessary to perform a trill on a natural trumpet or horn that does not have valves.  In these instances, these are known as lip trills as it is the lips that are responsible for rapidly alternating between the two notes.

Lip slurs are best approached through learning the lip slur technique slowly and carefully, with careful attention being given to the position of the tongue, embouchure and trumpet.

I hope this short guide proves to be useful – please do remember I have covered the trill for the different eras only quite briefly.  It would be good to apply and use this information as a general rule, but it is always a good idea to check the score (or edition) that you are using, as it is of course possible that there will be many occasions where a variety of rules may be applied.

If you would like further information relating to Music Theory, please do get your own copy of Un-Dreary Theory from www.shaunthemusicteacher.co.uk.

Until next time, happy trilling!

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