The Psychology of the Trill

Students of classical music may look in vain for scholarly literature on the trill. But the search for its raison d’être is not a trivial pursuit.

There must be answers to the question why passages of quick alteration between two adjacent notes are such an important element in classical compositions, often a few bars ahead of the final chord. In concertos, trills are mandatory at the end of the cadenza, before the orchestra comes in for the conclusion. If prolonged suspense is required, why, of all things, should imitations of bird-songs be used to provide it?

Trills are, of course, also used in the body of compositions – far from their conclusion. They are occasionally even used in a main theme where they do not necessarily suggest hesitation or suspense. If they were substituted by a single note it would be clear that there was something missing.

Please don’t think that trills are primarily used to give the performer an opportunity for showing off.

Nor that their real purpose is to create difficulties for anyone trying to sing or whistle the tune.

Trills are, in fact, a significant part of the musical vocabulary. But until this posting was written, did they get any recognition?

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5 responses to “The Psychology of the Trill

  1. A question: why is that when we hear a trill, it’s the lower note that gets interpreted as melodic, and the upper as ornament? Is it just that the leading-tone-resolving-to-tonic thing gets generalized? Are there instances of “downward” trills, where the upper note is the melodic one?

  2. No, there are no such instances. The lower note always has more gravity than the upper note. That is why we are taught to start a trill with the upper note, as an apéritif for the lower note.

  3. But why the asymmetry? How do we learn to hear it that way? Objectively, the trill consists of two pitches, a semitone or wholetone apart, rapidly alternating. Why favour the lower one as melodic? Why do we hear the upper note as ornamenting the lower, instead of the reverse?

  4. Never having thought about trills other than a challenge for the musician and an adventure for the listener, I set out to find out more and discovered this amazing collection of classical trill thrills: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Article/316158,the-top-twelve-trills-in-classical-piano.aspx

  5. I think it’s possible that the inspiration for a trill, the invention, if you like, came from listening to birds. Some, like thrushes, have really thrilling trills. But I don’t think that’s the real reason for trills in music. They became useful as a way of sustaining a note on an instrument that is not a sustaining instrument — e.g. a keyboard instrument. The moment you strike a key, the sound starts to decay. A trill keeps it going. it is also a really good way of accenting a note, as with the trills for both piano and strings at the beginning of the Brahms piano concerto featured in that top twelve trills video. The electrifying drum roll which starts the concerto is a kind of trill, too. As for its ubiquitous place just before a cadenza, or a cadence, if you think about it that’s a place where the harmonic motion of the music stops, the music holds its breath, so to speak, but the trill sustains the sound and the suspense until the resolution of the cadence or the onslaught of the cadenza begins.
    I don’t think Charles’s comment that the lower note of a trill is always the melodic one is quite true. The melodic note of a trill is the one which fits the underlying harmony of the line. The two notes are not at all equal in harmonic meaning: one is an appogiatura, (an ornament), and It does not have the same weight in the harmonic outline of the phrase. You could leave it out and the melodic line wouldn’t suffer. You could conceivably start a trill from under the melodic note — it would sound weird, but in any case you would not have any trouble knowing which was the melodic and which the ornamental note.