By Louise Lee

The problem: You want to play traditional Scottish music, but you can’t seem to make it sound, well, Scottish.

Solution: Learn to play Scottish ornaments to add more authentic flavor to your interpretations.

Playing Scottish fiddle is a special opportunity to exercise your creative interpretive powers. In Scottish fiddle music, “the emphasis is on individual interpretation,” says Melinda Crawford Perttu, assistant professor at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. For that reason, many printed scores for Scottish music have few if any notations for ornaments, which give the music its unique Scottish feel and flavor.

It can take some time and effort to become accustomed to the spare notations and feel confident enough to use ornaments freely. “Individuals should read the music and interpret it, but within the tradition,” says Perttu, who offers up some ideas to help you build your toolkit of ornaments and learn how and when to use them in your airs, jigs, and reels.

1) Master Specific Ornaments

The hammer-on. Perttu borrows the name of this ornament from the guitar technique of the same name requiring the player to slur two ascending notes by dropping a finger firmly onto the fretboard. With this ornament, think of slurring a grace note into a melody note, usually a major or minor second above. A variation of the hammer-on is what Perttu calls a “long-distance hammer on,” in which your grace note is on the next-lower string from your melody note and so you’re changing strings as you slur from the grace note into your melody note.

The pull-off. This ornament is another type of grace note. This time, the grace note is a pitch above the melody note. As you finish the grace note, keep the sound smooth and take care not to pluck the melody note with your left hand. These grace notes are very tiny notes requiring no accent from the bow.

The crunch. This ornament is a long-distance hammer-on of either a major or minor second. In a crunch, play the string crossing slowly with a down-bow so that you’re briefly playing both pitches at the same time. Cadences are good opportunities to use a crunch, says Perttu. Or think of a crunch as a way to ornament an open string. For instance, if a cadence moves from the G above middle C to your open A string, you can use a crunch to ornament the A. You’d play your G as a grace note and momentarily play both the G and A together before proceeding to the A.

The Tap. Like other ornaments, taps often aren’t notated, but if they are, they might appear as an “x.” The purpose of this ornament is to help the player mimic the bagpipes. Bagpipe players force a constant flow of air through the instrument and produce articulation by interrupting the air flow. String players can do the same with a tap.  To play a tap, use either your third or fourth finger and hit the string very quickly and lightly, with about the weight you’d use to play a harmonic. “A tap is not supposed to be any pitch, and if you hear one, you’re too heavy with your finger,” says Perttu.

Don’t use your first or second fingers in a tap, since those are more likely to produce a pitch.

You’d mostly likely use taps in airs, lamentations, pastorals, or other slow legato pieces that mimic the sound of bagpipes. Airs are the best pieces to use for practicing taps because they’re slow. If your score has a marking for a trill, that ornament should actually be played only as a tap, since trills aren’t part of traditional Scottish music, Perttu says.

The birl. It’s the only right-hand ornament, and it’s usually used in faster pieces. If it’s notated, the birl might be written as two sixteenth-notes followed by an eighth all on one pitch, but it would be played as two 32nd notes followed by a double-dotted 16th note, usually with a down-up-down bowing. Keep the bow pressure steady and keep the bow firmly on the string so there’s no ricochet or spiccato motion.

2) Learn When to Use These Ornaments

The best way to learn is to experiment. Some places to consider are the high points of phrases, cadences, the highest and lowest notes of pieces, and long, singing notes.

You can easily try combinations or rapid successions of ornaments. For instance, you can add a tap just before a grace note. Or if you’re resolving from A to B on the A string, you can insert a tap with your fourth finger before the resolution. Or if you’re playing the A as a melody note on the E string, you can tap with your fourth finger and return to the A as a grace note that continues on into the melody.

But don’t overdo it. “Some modern airs are like songs, and so the ornaments are not as florid as they’d be in an ancient Gallic air, which is a bagpipe tradition,” says Perttu. “With pieces that are from the bagpipe tradition, we imitate bagpipes with taps and ornaments that’ll be more florid, more complicated, and have more combinations.”

Jigs and reels use simpler and fewer ornaments because of the speed of the tune. “With reels, you tend to hear hammer-ons and that’s all,” Perttu says.

You should also avoid certain ornaments altogether when playing Scottish music. Glissandos, for example, aren’t considered Scottish. Also, “treat vibrato as ornamental,” says Perttu. If an old traditional piece calls for a lot of open strings, don’t use much vibrato, as a way to emphasize the ancientness of the piece.

If you’d like to get a little practice, work on your ornamentation in “Sitting in the Stern of a Boat.” Download the music here.

Further Resources

If you’re new to Scottish music, try listening to some pieces to give you a better sense of the style. Here are some ideas:

  • “Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife”
  • “Roslin’s Castle”
  • “Prince Charlie’s Last View of Scotland”
  • “They Stole My Wife from Me Last Night” (a translation of a Gallic tune)
  • “Mairi Bhan Og”
  • “Arran Boat Song”


This article was originally published in Strings’ April 2014 issue. Products mentioned in this article may no longer be available and/or new products may have since come on to the market. Please help keep this article relevant by commenting below or by contacting us directly.