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A Trilling Experience

Trills and fingered/keyed tremolos are the same thing, an oscillation between two notes. If the interval is a half or whole step it is called a trill, and if the interval is larger it is called a tremolo. It is common for players to think of them all as trills, the tremolo description appears to be an academic one based upon the notation.

Trill notation is easy in tonal music with key signatures. The default is to trill to the next note in the key. But if you are in a foreign key or are not using key signatures and you want a whole step, how do you indicate it?

Trill not goodI have seen this notated a few ways, most often writing the trill as natural, sharp or flat, or putting the trill note in brackets. Writing the trill note is not that easy in notation programs so is not as common. I find using sharp or flat problematic as if you transpose your music with no key signatures, the required note may not be a flat, it may now be a natural or sharp.

Trill goodThe system I have found that negates these problems is to label it as half or whole step. This then works in any key or transposition.

A trill may be notated in the same manner as a fingered/keyed tremolo is. This can be handy if you want to start on the upper note. My rule is that if a texture contains a mix of trills and tremolos, then I use tremolo notation. If there are only half- or whole-step trills, then I use trill notation.
The exception to this is mallet percussion. As they have to play all long notes as a tremolo, oscillating between notes, passages of mixed notes should be written as diads and chords with tremolo slashes.

Xylo rolls

On stringed instruments, trills and tremolos share some technical issues with double stops and harmonics in that you are using two fingers at once. Depending on where they are, it may be hard to play legato out of a trill or tremolo into another one.

The notation of fingered/keyed tremolo can look confusing to those who are not used to reading it, as it indicates the whole duration for both notes. Unlike bowed tremolo where ties or slurs are not needed, it is important to include bowing slurs here. I have also had the odd person ask if the bow is to trem as well.

fingered trem

Trill trem exampleAdding Color
Trills and tremolos are great way to add interest to your orchestration. Depending on the notes, they can add suspenseful tension or a subtle flutter.

Sustained minor seconds are often used for tension. If I get a sketch that has a minor second tremolo, I will often add a trill to it. If I get a trill, I often add them tremolo.

If you have a three-note tremolo chord, here are a few ways you can use fingered tremolo. This can even be a good way to add interest to a sustained chord without tremolo.

Fingered trem

In this case I have left the tremolo chords in Violin 1. If you take them out, you will be left with a soft and fluttery sound.

trem example alt

If you can only use one section, here is a way to make a similar sound.

To remove the sense of tension, I would lose the tremolo on the top note.

Posted in: NotationOrchestrationTricks
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  1. Tim,

    I love your catchy subject titles. And, of course, your well written and thorough articles.

    Thank you.

    David D.

  2. Some instruments, such as Native American flute, commonly trill with widely spaced intervals. Your suggestion to use tremolo chord notation would be an elegant way of notating that. I think that I would use small note heads for the embellishment notes. That way the ornament could optionally be dropped by the player.

    I am not familiar with Finale, but in MusicScore, I sometimes include a second, invisible playback staff, that dissects an ornament into individual notes, and I mute the corresponding note on the visible staff that is written with the abbreviated notation.

    That is also useful for playing back gradually accelerating trill timing, such as the opening trill in Rhapsody in Blue.

    Does the hidden playback staff technique work also in Finale?

    • Hi, yes, if I need next level playback in finale I will do things with hidden staves. The notation I use and recommend is great for orchestral instruments, but I think once you get into native instruments other ways might be better as you suggest.

  3. For bowed tremolo, is there one fermata over the slur, or are there two fermati (one over each note) above the slur if the special effect is held out?

  4. can trills be used to add suspense and how

  5. Would you agree that certain tremolos on woodwinds are next to impossible and so should be avoided? I’m thinking of cases where the interval involves going over the break, or where the same finger (or thumb) is required to alternate between two keys. Your first violin example, for instance, would be very difficult for any length of time on the oboe.

  6. Hi Tim! Thanks for you kind replies! Found a plugin that might do the “parenthesized trill notes” trick instantly. Best wishes!

    • The problem with that plugin is that it does it by creating grace notes and shifting them. Every time you re-space the music, it will shift them back to the wrong position, you then have to run another command to move them back. Not a good way to work when you have lots of large files. Fine if you are only working on one and can remember to check on them all the time. Also, a lot of the TG plugs do not work in Finale 2014. I still use 2011 for this reason.

  7. … although I’m not sure if 1/2 usually means “half of the section”. As in “1/2 ponticello” or “1/2 trem.” that literally means that half play ‘ordinario’ and the other half play the tremolo or pont. Have you ever had questions from the performers about this notation? Best wishes and thanks for the inspiring blog!!

    • When it comes to the trill, everyone is trilling, most people get it. But I have been asked about it, so it is not 100% universal. I just find it is the most convenient for me. But all the systems seem have issues, either interpretive or technical. Using small notes is a real pain in finale to do and keep neat.
      As for 1/2 trem or 1/2 pont. I just mark exactly that.

  8. Great post and nice sounding fluttery texture! Can you explain how you achieve that ‘1/2-tone trill’ symbol with the 1/2 on it in Finale? Best wishes from Austria!

    • Thanks. You can create a custom smart shape and with a little bit of fiddling make it look right. Then save it into your default file so it is always there for you.


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