Appoggiaturas? Grace Notes?

I’ve always wondered why lots of players – and not only bass players – seem to play appoggiaturas or grace notes without thinking about why they are there, what they mean, and how they are supposed to be played. Here’s an example.

Let’s take a look at the bass (or violone) solo in the Trio of the Menuett of Haydn’s Symphony No. 8, “Le Soir.” 

Here is how Haydn wrote it:


Now, here’s how you hear it played 99.9% of the time:


I hate to break it to you, 99.9%, but if that’s the way you are playing this, you’re playing it wrong.

Think about this for a second. In the second and fourth measures, in Haydn’s original score, you have two different forms of notation on the first and second beats. If Haydn wanted you to play four eighth-notes, wouldn’t he have written four eighth-notes, instead of going out of his way to write two different things? Why would he do that, unless he wanted two different things? In other words, these are grace notes, not appoggiaturas.

There is a simple reason why you should not play four eighth-notes in those situations. Here it is: Haydn does not want you to. If he had wanted that, he would have written it. It’s really as simple as that.

Instead, think of it this way. First of all, play it without the small grace notes, like this:


This gives you the basic rhythmic and harmonic structure of the piece. If you have ever been in Austria, you might have heard something called a Ländler, a kind of peasant’s dance in triple time. This Trio movement is similar to many of those dance movements in the Austrian countryside, and Haydn certainly was familiar with and inspired by them. So, once you have the rhythmic structure taken care of, you know which notes are important. In this case, that means the grace note (because that’s what it is!) is there to enhance the first note of the measure, not to change its value. Therefore, since it is a grace note and not an appoggiatura, it must be short, non-accented, and before the beat.

This is of course also valid for measures 16, 30, 32 and 44 – and not just for the bass (violone), but also for the accompanying instruments!

Written and added on July 4, 2014. Updated on November 21, 2019.

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