Ornamental Turns in Piano Music

Sheet music
Sheet music. Getty Images/Simon Battensby

A musical turn is a curled symbol written above a note on the staff. The note affected by the symbol is only the note that the turn is placed above; it does not affect other notes in the sequence. This main note is a like a home base for the turn. The turn creates a musical flourish that expands the initial single note into a series of four notes.

Ornamentation in music performance became especially popular in Baroque music and it is still used in composition today. The exact speed and rhythm of a turn can vary greatly depending on the style of the composition, the tempo, and any directions shared in the music from the composer. 

Regular turns begin with the note above the base note, followed by the main note, then note below and finally landing on the main note again. For example, if you have a turn notated on an F-natural, the turn would be played in this order: G-F-E-F. The overall effect of the turn allows the listener and the harmony to be aligned with the core note, in this example "F," but also create movement in the melody. Turns may also occur in the harmony, but it is not as common as when they are added to melodic notes. 

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Inverted Turns

Turns and inverted turns on the piano grand staff.
Images © Brandy Kraemer, 2015

 An inverted turn follows the same principle as the regular turn but occurs in a different order. For an inverted turn, the sequence begins on the note below the main note. So using F-natural as our example again, the four notes would be played in this order: E-F-G-F. 

In the music notation, the turn symbol is flipped upside-down to indicate that a turn is inverted, or sometimes it can be indicated with a small vertical line cutting through the turn symbol. An easy way to remember the difference between a regular turn symbol and an inverted turn sign is to look at the first initial curve of the turn. If it starts at the top and then slopes down, you will play a regular turn, which starts at the "top" and then descends. If the symbol scoops down and then inclines, you'll play an inverted turn which, similarly, scoops down for the note below the main note and then ascends. 

A turn is an embellishment or an “ornament,” therefore the rhythm and melody or harmony of a song will not be disrupted or incomplete without it so long as the main note is played.

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Modified Turns

The embellishing notes within a turn may be modified with small accidentals above or below its symbol, depending on whether the upper note or lower note is affected. If a small natural sign accompanies the small accidental, the sharp or flat will only affect the turn and not the remainder of that measure. An example of a turned note with an accidental might be a turn indicated on a G-natural. If the notes of the turn are meant to be A-G-F-sharp-G, then the F-sharp would be indicated in small print beneath the turn. This would only be the case of there is not already an F-sharp indicated in the key signature.