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Music

Grace Note Guide: How to Play Grace Notes in Music

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 17, 2020 • 3 min read

The written notation of Western music typically requires precision when it comes to rhythm. From whole notes to half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and beyond, each printed musical note has an exact duration in relation to the piece's tempo and time signature. Yet some notes are so brief—or so dependent on a player's discretion—that they cannot be represented with a standard musical time value. One key example is the grace note.

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What Is a Grace Note?

A grace note is a brief note that functions as ornamentation for the note that follows it, which is known as a main note or principal note. In performance practice, grace notes function as an acciaccatura, a term in music theory that describes ornamentation or embellishment. This means that the grace note is not stressed but instead glides quickly into the principal note, which receives the primary stress.

Some grace notes appear on the page with a slash through them, indicating they are to be played as an appoggiatura. An appoggiatura is functionally the opposite of an acciaccatura: It calls for the grace note to receive the main emphasis. If you see a grace note with a slash through it, play the grace note with greater force than the main note to which it resolves.

Why Do Composers Use Grace Notes in Music?

Grace notes exist in music for ornamentation and embellishment. Unlike notes with short durations, such as sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes, grace notes do not maintain the rhythmic pulse of a piece of music; they go by too quickly to affect the tempo of a piece. Instead, grace notes almost function like half of a trill, minus either an upper mordent or lower mordent. Grace notes add color and character to music, but they do not alter its tempo.

Grace notes appear in all genres, but they're particularly popular in classical music. Baroque music, like that composed by J.S. Bach, frequently used musical ornaments. Common ornaments throughout the Baroque period include grace notes, tremolos and trills. In the Classical period, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart often combined grace notes with glissandos and quavers to create ornamentation. Beethoven brought grace notes from the Classical era into the Romantic era, using them to create both diatonic and dissonant textures.

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How to Notate Grace Notes in Written Music

There are three types of grace notes in musical notation. All appear as small notes with note heads that are roughly half the diameter of a full-sized note head. All can involve slur markings that tie the grace note to the principal note, although this is at the discretion of a composer or arranger. The three forms of grace note notation are:

1. Grace notes without slashes: These indicate an acciaccatura wherein the grace note is only lightly accented, and the player reserves emphasis for the principal note that follows.

Grace notes without slashes

2. Grace notes with slashes: This type of grace note indicates an appoggiatura where the grace note receives more rhythmic emphasis than the main note that follows.

Grace notes with slashes

3. Multiple grace notes: Standard music notation allows for more than one grace note at a time. A run of two or more grace notes can lead into a regular note. Be aware, however, that the more grace notes you include, the more they will take on a rhythmic duration. A string of grace notes could potentially sound like an extended slur in one player's hands, but in the hands of a less-skilled player, they might sound like a thirty-second note pattern or even a sixteenth note triplet. For this reason, single grace notes tend to be the norm in most styles of music.

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