Since the 18th century, Mozart’s music has inspired deep analysis and discussion for both performers and music analysts. I won’t go into too much detail, but if you found this post, you’re interested in how to “correctly” play Mozart’s music on the piano.
In this post, I first provide a brief description of the long-discussed concept of “authenticity” in music performance and why being aware of this debate is important to musicianship. Then I’ll talk about the execution of specific figures in Mozart’s music. These are techniques like playing ornaments, use of the pedal, and articulation and overall style.
The goal is to help you grow more aware of the choices you get to make as a performer and show you what symbols in Mozart’s scores mean.
The Question of Authenticity in Music Performance
In performance of Classical music especially (referring to music of the common practice period, not just the Classical era), “authentic” performance has been one of many goals of what it means to play this music well. “Authenticity” typically plays a role in the most normal answers to “How do you play Mozart?” It encompasses a description of the style and technique that we’ll discuss in this post. Before we do this, however, I wanted to include a brief mention of authenticity in music performance and in art more generally.
The answer to “What is authenticity in music?” has been debated widely for a long time and spans the range from “historically informed performance” (the extreme of musicians who will only play on period instruments — there’s actually a society for it) to “make it your own; all Classical music performances are just covers of the originals.”
So there isn’t a real answer to this, but it’s important to realize that this debate exists, and whenever you play this music in public, people will always have strong opinions regarding how it should be performed. The debate rages in academia, and if you’re interested in an introduction to this debate, I recommend reading at least the introduction to Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance.
It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you want to get a general idea of how deep the debate goes, Taruskin’s book is a helpful resource.
Part of the issue of authenticity relies upon how we define musical “work.” Is it the performance, the realization, of a composition; or is it the notes on the page as written by the composer? How much can we rely on performer interpretation?
This debate came into the public eye with the advent of recording technology, which inspired a drive for the “best” or “purest” recordings of music. But because we don’t have recordings of Mozart playing, we can’t know what he fully intended other than the notes on the page and descriptions from letters and concert reviews. It is fun to dig into these moments in history, but we must remember that there is a limitation to what we can know about Mozart’s music as heard live.
Additionally, we must question how important it is to play these pieces as historically accurate. In some cases, tradition changed how pieces were originally played, and the tradition is held by many scholars to be the most “authentic” way to play a piece.
To sum up, when you play a piece by Mozart, you enter into a long, widely debated tradition of what is supposedly the best means of performing. However you decide to play the piece, make sure that your interpretive choices are deliberate; you’re bound to run into someone who will at the very least ask you why you chose to play Mozart that way. And you may find someone who wants to argue. Best to have something to help you stand firm!
I experienced this firsthand in one of my first Mozart performances in undergrad. One of the criticisms from a faculty member was that I played Mozart “too romantically” and that I needed to tone down the dynamics to be more even.
This criticism really threw me, but I learned that the way we play tells a story, our story. It’s based upon the way we experience this music, and when we face the proper way to play the music, we are entering into the discussion of whether “authenticity” means being as historically accurate as possible (which is also up for debate!) or interpreting the music in a new way.
That’s as deep as we’ll go today. For this post, I’m focusing more on understanding what markings in the score mean and how they’re traditionally played, but I wanted you all to be aware of the debate and the long, passionate tradition you’re a part of as a pianist.
I get the most questions about playing ornaments in different eras of music, so we’ll start with them!
Ornaments are any extra embellishment given to music that are not part of the structure of the music. What performers typically refer to as ornaments are embellishments that aren’t fully written out in the sheet music and instead are symbolized using some of the following:
But, written out figures that aren’t structurally significant to the piece can also be considered ornaments when you’re conducting a music analysis. For the question of playing in the style of Mozart, we’re only interested in how to play the symbols shown above.
The most-used ornament is the trill (otherwise called a shake), which is a rapid alternation between two neighboring notes, a note that’s written in the score (known as the “principal”) and the note right above it (known as the “auxiliary”).
In the Baroque period through the work of Mozart, performers traditionally began the trill on the auxiliary note, which written out would look like this:
Trills can be diatonic (the notes are beside each other in the key of the piece) or chromatic (one of the notes does not belong to the overall key of the piece). Chromatic trills are denoted by a sharp (raise the note below the principal by half a step) or a flat (lower the note above the principal by half a step) and are primarily used in changing key areas, such as if a piece moves into the minor mode.
Additionally, trills also frequently include turns, which are denoted either by what looks like grace notes before or after the principal note on the staff or by a stylized trill squiggle symbol.
There’s a lot more to be said about trills, which you can get a good taste of from the Wikipedia page on them. Additionally, they have a handy chart for how to interpret the stylized trills:
Learning to play even trills with ease can take a long time, but practicing finger independence, relaxed wrist, and playing a variety of exercises each day can get your trills to be solid.
Here’s a great video from Josh Wright that helped me understand the process of learning trills:
The most famous trill exercise is found in Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist and actually includes Mozart’s own trill exercise in it (and Thalberg’s trill), but I’ve personally found practicing the entire exercise creates a lot of tension in my hand, especially since it focuses on trills using fingers that are next to each other (1 and 2, 2 and 3, etc.). The Mozart trill exercise includes other combinations (like 1 and 3), so I’ve found that one alone beneficial to work: it’s the bottom right section of the image below:
Practicing Hanon every day is both physically and mentally exhausting, so I also really enjoy this exercise from Nahre Sol because it makes me feel fancy:
As with every technique in piano, however, it’s important to learn trills “in the wild.” Find pieces with trills in them, listen to masters play them, and mimic them. Make music with your trills. They can be so incredibly expressive, as you can use them as a means of adding a crescendo to “one note” in piano. You can start slow and speed up, or start fast and slow down. Most of all, have fun playing them because your non-pianist friends and family will be so impressed.
Turns and Other Ornaments
Turns are the other ornament you’re most likely to see in Mozart’s music. They look like a backwards swoopy “S” on its side and are performed by playing the principal note (the note on the staff over which the turn symbol sits), the note above, the principal note again, and then the note below.
The rhythm is up to you: you can play this as an added triplet (like in the first turn in this picture) at the end of the principal note or divide the length of the principal note into these four notes (like in the second turn in this picture). Like the trill, a turn can raise the lower (or upper) note depending on its context. You’ll have to know what key the music is in at the moment of the turn to determine this.
Although you may never encounter these, turns can also be inverted (meaning you’d play the principal, then the lower, the principal, then the upper). They’re signified by turning the swoopy S upside down or by putting a line through it.
Mordents and other ornaments don’t occur often in Mozart’s music, so I won’t discuss them here, but if you’re interested, the Wikipedia page on musical ornamentation is a great resource for the rest of them. The techniques required to play other ornaments are similar to that of the trill and the turn, so the exercises included here can help you polish other ornaments.
Use of the Sustain Pedal
In any piece of music, the onset of every note (the moment when sound begins) is a required part of rhythm. For music that uses a lot of sustain pedal, releases are less important. So how much pedal do we use with Mozart?
This, of course, relies on how “historically accurate” you’re trying to be. But if you choose to reinterpret or to stick with the music Mozart originally made, it’s helpful to understand what type of instrument Mozart played on, a fortepiano.
The types of fortepiano Mozart played on included “pedals” in the form of knee levers or knobs (like on an organ), but the entire apparatus of the fortepiano lacked the ability to sustain as much as a modern grand piano.
Because of this limitation of the historical instrument, many teachers instruct their students to never use pedal. On the other hand, because the fortepiano did have sustain levers, other teachers allow a little pedal.
Traditionally, however, we don’t use as much sustain as if we were playing Chopin, so it’s up to you and your teacher to decide what’s best for you.
I, personally, use pedal sparingly with Mozart and save it (usually half-pedaling) for moments when my small hands create annoying gaps in the performance or to add color and depth to particular chords. This is to hold myself accountable for practicing finger legato instead of relying on the pedal, and I just prefer the sound of Mozart without pedal, but definitely experiment with what works best for you.
Hopefully this isn’t a too dissatisfying description of pedal in Mozart, but overall, less pedal is safest if you’re trying to avoid criticism.
Articulation and Weight
Another aspect of the fortepiano from Mozart’s time is that it wasn’t as loud as pianos today. It was made mostly of wood and didn’t have a cast-iron soundboard to project sound like our grand pianos today. With that in mind, most performances of Mozart maintain a light, gentle touch.
It’s of note that Mozart used (and included in the score) a lot of separation between notes, staccatos, and large leaps, and it’s important to observe these.
Additionally, the release of each note is as important to rhythm in Mozart’s music as the onset. If the left hand only has a quarter note at the beginning of a 4/4 measure, make sure that you release the note on beat 2. This will help with the light touch, as you won’t have any extra notes to muddy the sound.
I appreciate this video of speed, lightness, and looseness from Josh Wright that helps with this type of playing:
I hope these tips and the discussion of “authenticity” help you make informed decisions about how to interpret the Mozart pieces you’re playing, so you can be an active participant in the tradition of musical performance. Part of the point of music (as with any art) is human connection, and learning about this tradition connects you to people of the past and present. It’s a wonderful club to participate in!
If you found the videos from Josh Wright helpful, I encourage you to check out his ProPractice Course, as it covers the techniques you need to be a classical pianist. Or if you need help with any specific pieces by Mozart, check out Dr. Wright’s stand-alone tutorials on Mozart pieces.
Want to learn more about music theory and analysis? Check out the resources page, where you can find other analyses of specific pieces and general resources to learn theory and analysis skills!
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.
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