Diminution and Variations

We will now turn back to exploring diminution in more depth.

Diminution is the act of transforming a line of long durations into a line of shorter durations. The new line introduces energy and ornamentation through rhythmic and contour variety. Rhythm is at the heart of diminution.

Already in the 16th century performers were expected to add embellishments to the written music (or diminutions).

Some composers would write out much of their diminutions – though performers would often still add their own embellishments. Some theorists also wrote manuals describing how to create diminutions. We will study some of these compositions and manuals to improve our own diminution skills.

How do we create diminutions?

There are countless ways to ornament any voice leading pattern, as can be seen in the early manuals on the topic (1535 – Sylvestro Ganassi, La Fontegara).

While we will certainly not exhaust all the possibilities of diminution, we will use a few simple models to help us ornament voice leading patterns in our improvisations and compositions. Remember that we must have the voice-leading pattern or ‘skeleton’ of the piece first.

Six Models for Diminution

  • Long notes (no diminution)
  • Repeated notes and tremolos
  • Repeated note with octave displacement
  • Upper and lower neighbors, mordents and trills
  • Goal oriented diminutions
  • Arpeggiation

Long notes

Long notes are expressive and lyrical. Particularly in passages where one pitch remains in common, this can be the best choice.

J.S. Bach: Air on a G String (Orchestral Suite no. 3)

Repeated notes and tremolos

Repeated notes and tremolos are similar to long notes and only require the choice of division of the original duration. In instrumental music of the 18th century repetition is very common whereas long notes are more rare.

Antonio Vivaldi, Winter from The Four Seasons

Repeated note with octave displacement

Repeated note with octave displacement are very common in the bass but can also be used as engaging thematic material:

Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria, RV 589 (Edition Andreas Schein, 2019.)

Upper and lower neighbors, mordents and trills:

W.A.Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro K 492 (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1879. Plate W.A.M. 492.)

Goal Oriented Diminutions

Goal oriented diminutions: I am adopting this term from Michael Callahan’s article Improvising Motives: Applications of Michael: Wiedeburg’s Pedagogy of Modular Diminutions. The idea comes from Michael Wiederburg’s manual for improvisation from 1775. Wiederburg was a German organist and his treatise is very practical in nature.

The idea of goal oriented diminutions is to use stepwise motion towards the next note of a voice-leading diminution with less regard to what preceded it. The figure should be in the implied local tonality.

Callahan sites six such figured from Wiedeburg

Michael Callahan, Improvising Motives: Applications of Michael
Wiedeburg’s Pedagogy of Modular Diminutions, 33. Intégral
Vol. 24, Special Issue in Honor of Robert Wason (2010), pp. 29-56
  1. The Schleifer consists of three pitches ascending or descending to the goal note.
  2. The Doppelschläge is a turn around the goal tone.
  3. The Schneller is a double neighbor to the goal tone.

These can be modified to include fewer pitches or a larger number of pitches. For now we will focus on these six options.

Remember to always focus on the goal tone and not worry about the previous structural note:

Notice that our standard beaming rules often obscure the goal oriented nature of these Diminutions. We often associate diminution notes with the preceding note – just because of the way our notation looks. Of course, sometimes they do, but when we use goal oriented diminutions we want to forget about the previous note and focus on the next note.


Arpeggiation is the process of outlining a vertical sonority as a melodic figure. This may be in ascending or descending order or may leap back and forth. Arpeggiation of any interval beyond the third will often create a ‘polyphonic line’, i.e. a single line that suggests several voice-leading patterns. Listen to Bach’s Partita for solo flute and try to determine how many voice leading parts you hear in this piece written for a monophonic instrument.

In the next section we will study how Antonio Vivaldi uses these techniques in his Trio Sonata in D minor RV 63, “La Folia.” The goal of this analysis is to encourage creative exploration of diminutions and not to arrive at a prescriptive approach.

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