Seven Guidelines for Renaissance Phrasing

Cornett player with singer (unknown 16th-c. painting)
Cornett player with singer
(unknown 16th-c. painting)

A lot of people have come to me over the years to learn some of the basics of cornett playing (by the way, I prefer “cornett” rather than “cornetto,” since I think the English version of the word is every bit as good as the Italian). After talking about the instrument and the mouthpiece a bit, the student will play something that she has been working on.

Then the subject of phrasing comes up. Although each piece might have some peculiarities of phrasing, I like to start out with these seven guidelines. These are also very helpful in playing on modern instruments, too–in a brass quintet, for example.

  1. Bar lines are used in modern editions for convenience sake. The parts that performers used back in the 16th Century were frequently without bar lines. Therefore, “metrical” accents (accents based where a note is in a bar) don’t usually sound right, unless the music is a dance of some sort.
  2. Long notes get the emphasis. For instance, if there is a half note surrounded by quarter notes, then the half note gets the emphasis.
  3. Long notes sound great with a swell (crescendo followed by decrescendo).
  4. Emphasis relies mostly on “agogic” accents. This is the type of accent you have to use on an instrument like the harpsichord or organ (where you can’t make dynamic changes from note to note). To make an agogic accent, you have to play the note before the accented note shorter (not as sustained).
  5. Notes which come after a leap of a third or greater receive more accent (or at least a little more articulation). Conjunct motion should be smoothly articulated.
  6. Unequal tonguing is the norm. “ti ri ti ri” (with Italian pronunciation; if you want to think in terms of English syllables, “tah dah tah dah” will sound great) works well for moderately fast notes. “Li ri li ri” works better for faster notes (this would be what jazz players sometimes call “doodle tonguing”). Sometimes, what modern trumpeters call “double tonguing” works, too. This is true when the need for clarity outweighs the need for gracefulness. Also true for more martial-styled music.
  7. If there are words which go with the music, let the syllabification of the words help determine the phrasing.

These rules of thumb cover 80% of all situations. The other 20% will need either a bit more study into theoretical sources or some thoughtful decision making.

Trompe l'oeil of a gallery of musicians with cornettist
Trompe l’oeil of a gallery of musicians with cornettist


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