Lean On Me: Finding Beauty and Expression in Appoggiaturas

Appoggiaturas are so powerful in terms of emotional content because they create an influence on harmony as well as melody.

By Scott Flavin | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Appoggiatura is from the Italian, meaning “to lean upon, rest.” Musically, it is defined as a note, one step above or below the “main” note, performed before a note of the melody and falling on the beat; it usually creates a dissonance with the prevailing harmony and resolves on the following weak beat.

“Consonance is boring; dissonance is interesting.”

—Anner Bylsma

Appoggiaturas became an important voice-leading device in all music after the 16th century, and are found throughout all periods of music, from Bach to the Beatles and beyond. For example, in the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001, for solo violin, you find appoggiaturas throughout (see Example 1).

As you can see, this movement of Bach is saturated with appoggiaturas, helping to create a feeling of deep sadness and yearning. For a more contemporary reference, the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” starts with a downward appoggiatura on the first word of the song. Just imagine (forgive the pun) “Yesterday” without that appoggiatura—the first bar of the music would be totally devoid of introspection and reflection.

Appoggiaturas are so powerful in terms of emotional content because they create an influence on harmony as well as melody; from the operatic vocal tradition of sospiro (“sigh”), the descending resolved dissonance shows pain, longing, and beauty—truly a musical cry of despair. However, all too often, players ignore the expressive possibilities in appoggiaturas.


First, the Search

So first of all, how do you find them if you’re not sure where they are? One strategy is to look at the full score and relate your part to it. If you find non-chord tones, that is, notes that do not belong to the notes of the harmony, they may be appoggiaturas. Look for the following note to be either a step below or above the possible appoggiatura.

Another strategy is to sing the phrase to yourself—you more than likely will hear the dissonance and expression in the appoggiaturas; in any case, your singing voice won’t steer you wrong, even if you’re not a trained singer.

Explore Appropriate Emphasis

Now that you’ve found the appoggiaturas, how do you play them? First, remember that because appoggiaturas are dissonances, you want to emphasize them. Think of the myriad ways you can do that, both with the bow and the left hand. For example, you can take a cue from the original Italian word, and lean into them with the bow, slowing down bow speed and adding weight to give emphasis. In terms of the left hand, vibrato accentuation will be very important. As always, the context of the music will help you find the meaning in each note.


You can also give greater importance to appoggiaturas by playing them slightly longer in duration. Called an agogic accent, this allows you to give appoggiaturas a natural inflection. As with rubato, whenever you take time in music, you must make up that time, to preserve the pulse of the music.

Another very important tool in the string world is manipulating pitch for appoggiaturas. When you use “expressive intonation,” you follow the pull of certain notes within the harmony. For example, if you have an appoggiatura descending by a half step, play the upper note as close in pitch to the lower note as possible, highlighting the emotion. Conversely, if the appoggiatura is ascending, play it sharp, as close to the following note as possible for maximum effect.

Consider the Meaning

You must always connect every note with the meaning of the music. In Example 2, from the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, there are multiple appoggiaturas, one after the other. If you were to play all of them with maximum expression, the music would most certainly get bogged down and become a morass of over-emotive notes. So you must find a hierarchy to these successive appoggiaturas. 


In this case, three sets of two bars of appoggiaturas build to the culminating appoggiatura before the trill in the third bar, creating a sense of shape and phrasing that is entirely musical. Conversely, were you not to acknowledge any of these appoggiaturas (as quite a few violinists do), this passage would become rather less meaningful, and certainly would lose a great deal of color as a result.

As a performer, you are always searching for ways to share the brilliance of music with an audience; when you become more aware of the rich expressive possibilities of appoggiaturas, you can use them to show ever-greater depth and emotion in your playing.