12

A grace note (Wikipedia link) is a generally short-lived musical note, which serves to 'decorate' a melody, while not adding any time to it, or affecting the melody's structure in any significant way.

But why 'grace'? Who coined the term? Was it borrowed from another language, say, Italian? What was the logic behind associating the notion of 'grace' with this kind of musical note? Concerning the origin of 'grace note' in English, Etymonline says only this:

In music, "an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony," 1650s.

To be specific, I am researching a particular kind of musical ornament that recurs in Medieval Latin treatises on music theory (Gregorian chant), the so-called vinnola vox. The descriptions reveal it as either a quick short passing note in a rising musical passage, or a brief neighboring note between two notes of the same pitch, like an acciaccatura or mordent. All of these musical ornaments are conceptually similar to a grace note.

Well, the Latin term vinnola or vinnula, describing a voice, means 'lovely', 'sweet', 'delightful', believed to be derived from the name Venus (goddess of love), about which Wikipedia says the following:

It [Venus] has connections to venerari ("to honour, to try to please") and venia ("grace, favour") through a possible common root in an Indo-European *wenes- or *u̯enis ("friend"). Their common Proto-Indo-European root is assumed as *wen- or *u̯en- "to strive for, wish for, desire, love").

Granted, there are about eight centuries between the 1650s and the time period of these manuscripts. Yet the coincidence is tempting to study.

So ... what do we know about the connotation of 'grace' in a grace note, and how far back does our knowledge reach?

  • Curiously both Google Books books.google.com/ngrams/… - the Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary thefreedictionary.com/grace+note - and M-W date its origin from the beginning of the 19th century. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/grace%20note – user067531 Jan 14 '18 at 8:02
  • So, what are grace notes called in Italian, in German, in other languages used during the period when grace notes became common? – GEdgar Jun 28 '19 at 11:29
  • I wonder if the OP might get some additional insight from the musicians at music.stackexchange.com ? – rajah9 Jun 28 '19 at 12:03
  • My thought is that the ornamental note is there by the grace of the principal note, which makes room for it (in the sense that the grace note has no time value of its own and must borrow from the time value of the principal note). That is not so different from King by the grace of god or a grace and favour estate - so it makes sense to me, although I wouldn't claim to know the history. I suggest asking on a baroque and/or early music forum. – user339660 Jun 28 '19 at 12:50
4

Interestingly, the OED gives its first attestation of "grace note" in the mid-1700s, but the word "grace" by itself appears as early as 1657, likely the citation that Etymonline was referring to.

No Graces, double relishes, Frillos, Grops or Piarro torte's [Errata: Trillos, Groppos, or Piano Forte's], but plaine as a packstaffe.

  • 1657 - R. Ligon True Hist. Barbados 12

Here, OED says "c[ompare] shake n.5.," which refers us to a quote:

Shake or Trill..consists of the regular and rapid alternation of a given note with the note above,..continuing for the full duration of the written note... Immediately before the final note of a shake a new subsidiary note is introduced, one degree below the principal note. This and the concluding principal note together form what is called the turn of the shake.

  • 1881 F. Taylor in Grove's Dict. Music III. 479

So apparently "shake" had a meaning somewhat related to "grace" or "grace note," but I don't think the OED's note is meant to indicate an etymology so much as a similar and related term. Another early citation uses both terms together.

The Trill or Shake of the Voice, being the most usual Grace.

  • 1672 J. Playford Introd. Skill Musick (ed. 6) i. 53

I suspect that the uses of "Grace" to mean a "grace note," the eventual full term, was a figurative extension of OED definition 13.b., which is first attested in 1579 and defined as:

The feature of something which imparts beauty or evokes admiration; the part or aspect of something from which its beauty derives; an adornment. Frequently with of. In later use esp. in grace and ornament.

The musical term "grace note" refers to notes which are ornamental, and this appears to be the closest precursor definition.

The OED does not indicate whether this definition is related to 16.a., which slightly predates it and refers to the three Graces in Greek mythology, goddesses "regarded as the givers of beauty and charm." For more on the three Graces in Greek mythology, see Wikipedia.

  • There is a long section here books.google.co.uk/… in which "grace" is used as both a noun and a verb. As a musician, I spent so long reading it, that I didn't allow myself to compose a proper response, but I wanted to leave the link here to come back to. – Phil M Jones Jun 28 '19 at 15:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.