Notating fingered articulations (cuts and strikes)

TLDR: I recommend using Grey Larsen's notation, or an equivalent, described below. If you use grace notes to notate fingered articulations in published ocarina music, it is advisable to include an annotation explaining what you are doing.


The problem with notating fingered articulations is that they originate from folk music where knowledge is mostly passed down by ear. Consequently, there is no standard way of notating them in sheet music. Among folk musicians, sheet music rarely shows exactly how something is played. It's more a form of loose tablature. Fingered articulations are learned and applied by the player through experience. The notations which are used are fine within their respective traditions, but would be ambiguous if applied generally.

Because of this, the story of notation is quite complicated. I deliberately omitted notation when I described cuts and strikes for this reason. You also don't need to know how they're written to know how to use them. Understanding notations is much easier once you have some practical experience with their use. But before discussing the various notations of fingered articulations, it helps to know where they came from.

The origin of fingered articulations

The usage of fingered articulations today is thought to derive from bagpipe technique. While many people understand the term 'bagpipe' to refer to the Highland pipe, historically many different kinds of bagpipes have existed including the Piob Mor, cabrette, and pastoral pipes. A common characteristic of these instruments is that sound production is continuous. Air constantly flows through the 'chanter', the melody pipe. The only way to articulate notes is to change pitch.

As noted in my introduction to fingered articulations, human perception has limitations. When a note is short enough, it is not perceived as having a definite pitch or rhythmic value, but rather sounds like a 'click'. Early players of these instruments observed this effect and started using it to articulate and emphasise notes, using special fingerings to make this easier. Consequently, while they are sometimes called 'ornaments', in practice they are both ornaments and articulations. Unlike ornaments in classical theory, they are not optional; any notes of the same pitch would be joined if they where omitted. The music would also lack accents.

Much of the sound of folk music comes from players of other instruments emulating the sound of bagpipers, including the use of fingered articulations. Irish music descended from the Uilleann* pipes, while Scottish music has borrowed a lot from the Highland pipes. In the common playing style of Irish music (what I am most familiar with), fingered articulations are used and long strings of notes are slurred to copy the bagpipe's sound.

* Pronounced illian, meaning elbow. This refers to how the pipes are blown using bellows attached to the arm.

A case study of notation

Although fingered articulations are most common in folk music, we do have a case study of an instrument with a comprehensive notation for them: the Highland bagpipe. This instrument and its playing style descend from folk music. However, as they where used to march armies and for military performances with large groups of pipers playing in unison, a form of notation was essential.

The Highland bagpipe is an instrument of its own, deviating from classical theory in several ways. For instance, the instrument's scale runs from G4 to A5 with two sharps and is not chromatic. This may be considered an A Mixolydian scale or several modes of D. Its sounding pitch is also higher than written. Furthermore, fingered articulations are notated using grace notes, but how they are interpreted differs significantly from classical tradition. For the reasons given in the next section, I don't think this approach would be universally appropriate with the ocarina.

The usage of grace notes within Highland pipe notation can be divided into 'articulations' and 'embellishments'. Articulations are notated as a single grace note before the parent note. They are meant to be played with a subliminal duration and are placed exactly on the beat or sub-beat of their parent note. In order to achieve that reliably, special fingerings are used, lifting or striking a single finger. In Highland pipe notation, a grace note on G means 'play a cut using the G finger'. Due to the physics of a tubular instrument, the pitch of these special fingerings may be close to the 'proper' fingerings. I cannot say for definite as I have never played this instrument.

Classical tradition defines two different kinds of grace note, appoggiatura (A-pog-a-tur-a) and acciaccatura (aggi-at-tura). As far as I can see, the Highland bagpipe does not differentiate and uses appoggiatura in all cases.

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Embellishments are treated differently. They are notated as groups of two or more grace notes positioned before a note. These groups correspond to named embellishments such as throws, grips, or doublings. Exactly how they are played is not clear from the notation. Some of the grace notes are played as 'cuts' while others are played with 'proper' fingerings. Their exact placement within the rhythm also changes. In some cases, the first grace note is placed on the beat; in others, the last is, with the previous ones anticipating it. Players read these patterns of grace notes as 'play a throw' or 'play a grip' and perform that from muscle memory. It is somewhat analogous to chord symbol like 'C', which can be voiced in many ways.

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The notation below shows approximately how a 'grip' is performed. This embellishment normally precieds the beat. and the two low G's are performed with 'proper' fingering and are normally perceived as notes. The C grace note is performed as a cut on the 'C' finger and has a duration between an64th and 128th. It's exact duration in notation will change with tempo so that its time duration stays constant and remains subliminal. You may notice that many of these ornaments jump to low G. Low G is the loudest note on the Highland pipe, and jumping to it is common for emphatic purposes.

"Notated" B8 {GcG} B8 | "Played" B6 G{c/4}G B8 |

While the example above anticipates the beat, the next example demonstrates the irregularity of the notation. A doubling is a double articulation of a single note performed as two cuts, the first on the beat and the second marginally later.

"Notated" B8 {gBd} B8 | "Played" B8 {g/4}B{d/4}B- B6 |

I find it interesting that, even with this notation, the Highland pipe still remains dependent on oral tradition, which I did not expect. There doesn't seem to be a consensus on exactly how these should be played, and I've heard several variations between players—for example, extending the two low G's in a grip to 16th notes.

These embellishments cannot be applied directly to the ocarina, although it is possible to simulate the effect. I have a draft document written by Jack Campin which goes into this in more detail, which may get finished at some point.

The problem with using grace notes

The problem with using grace notes to notate fingered articulations is that it is liable to be misinterpreted. This alternative way of using and interpreting grace notes works on the Highland pipes as it is deeply ingrained in the instrument's tradition. Players learn what they are and how to perform them while learning the instrument and, due to this, they are not ambiguous.

The ocarina is vastly less standardised and has players from many backgrounds. While there are many self taught players and folk musicians, many have classical training. It would not surprise me at all if some of these already use grace notes under the assumption of their meaning in classical theory. With this in mind, overloading the notation to also represent fingered articulations is bound to cause misinterpretation. It also makes it difficult to use both in the same piece of music, which could conceivably happen.

As noted above, classical tradition defines two different kinds of grace note, appoggiatura and acciaccatura. Of the two, acciaccatura are closest to my definition of a 'cut' since they are intended to be played 'as fast as possible'. Yet how they are approached differs; I've watched demonstrations of how to play them on several instruments and they are always demonstrated using standard fingerings. While a cut could be considered a special kind of acciaccatura where the duration must be subliminal, I feel that it is valuable to differentiate between them.

Conceptually, 'fingered articulation' is a much less ambiguous term, and notating them differently also has benefits. It lets the player know that they are critical and must be substituted for tonguing if they are omitted. It also says that they should be played using special fingerings and should not be heard as notes in and of themselves. The ambiguity I mentioned in Highland pipe notation could be reduced if it differentiated between 'cut' and 'proper' fingerings.

It is also worth considering how naming affects understanding. As long as a player knows what a notation means, what something is called doesn't really matter. However, how we think about something influences how we use it. Poor naming choices can also lead to the development of incorrect mental concepts. Calling cuts and strikes 'grace notes' can be confusing as people have a preconceived idea about what a 'note' is. Fingered articulations don't abide by the same rules. Also, if fingered articulations are called notes, it begs the question of whether the gaps created by tonguing should also be called notes. Another example of this problem from a different field is mathematics and imaginary numbers. While the name implies they don't exist, they are real and have wide application.

A potentially better option: Grey Larsen's notation

In his book 'The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle', Grey recognises the conceptual problem noted at the end of the previous section and proposes a different means of notating fingered articulations. This notation follows the system used to signify differences in articulation in classical tradition—for instance, placing a dot to indicate that a note should be played staccato. Grey adds two more symbols to represent cuts and strikes. Cuts are notated by placing a blocky comma ',' directly above the note. Strikes are notated by placing an arrow above a note. See the example below.

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I feel that using a notation along this line is better, considering the state of the ocarina community, as it lets grace notes retain their standard meaning. It is also easy to explain, visually intuitive, and looks less cluttered. Placing the notation directly above the note visually shows that the cut/strike should occur exactly on the beat and should not be considered a note in its own right.

Known limitations

The biggest issue I find with using this is software support. All programs I'm aware of lack the required symbols; Figuring out how to create the examples for this page took several days. If this is a problem, an alternative is to use text annotations to convey the same intent. The notation that I use in my explanation of rolls and cranns is based on Grey Larsen's notation, but represents it using textual annotations. 'CT' means 'cut', and 'ST' means 'strike'.

"CT" G | "ST" G

Secondly, these symbols could be ambiguous in some situations: the down arrow is visually similar to an up bow mark and the comma is similar to a breath mark. Obviously, the first isn't applicable to the ocarina. The second can be resolved by using a visually different breath mark. In practice, creating a completely unambiguous notation is arguably impossible. Sheet music is used to notate a great many musical genres and has changed meaning through history. Thus, creating an unambiguous notation would require an omnipotent knowledge.

The final issue is that it doesn't indicate fingering. I don't think this is a big issue with the ocarina. When played well, it is difficult to hear the pitch of these articulations. Highland pipe music frequently uses successive cuts on different fingers, but this is not perceptible normally; they just sound like a blip unless they are played slow. Plus, with the ocarina, pitch depends on chamber acoustics and the pitch produced by cutting with the same finger changes depending on which holes are open. The best you could do by giving fingerings is vague guidance. Should this be desired—for teaching, for example—it would be possible to add numbers to indicate fingering as is done on the piano.

Notations of fingered articulations using grace notes in folk music

While I wouldn't advise using grace notes for notating fingered articulations in general publications of ocarina music, it is worth being aware of how this notation is used in folk music so that you can interpret it. I have seen the notation used below in some Irish as well as Scottish traditional music. While I cannot definitely say 'Irish music doesn't use classical grace notes', cuts and strikes are vastly more common.

There are actually two different systems used to represent cuts and strikes using grace notes in folk music, absolute and vague. These terms reflect usage and are not widely accepted. Absolute notation uses grace notes to represent cut and strike fingerings, usually for tin whistle or simple system flute, while vague notation just says 'play a cut'. On the ocarina, you should treat both of these as vague and use whatever fingering is easiest. Fingerings don't translate well between instruments.

The example of absolute notation below is for a D tin whistle and means "play a cut using the 'C' finger" (the left index finger). The vague notation just means 'play a cut' in the same sense as Grey Larsen's notation. It does not mean 'play a cut on the next scale degree'. I'd particularly avoid striking or cutting using the small 'F' hole (standard tuned C ocarina). As the hole is so small it produces a weak articulation.

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Strikes in both absolute and vague notation are represented by placing a grace note on the scale degree below the current note. This is due to a limitation of the tin whistle and similar instruments, as it is only possible to strike the hole below the lowest open hole. You can ignore this limitation on the ocarina as strikes can be performed with any open hole.

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You may also run across instances where multiple grace notes occur before a note, for instance the example below that shows an irish long roll. It is important to note that like highland pipe notation this gives no indication of the rhythm of the roll. Your best bet if you run into such a tune is to listen to a performance. The timing of a roll matters because it makes the distinction between the roll being emphatic or just articulating 3 notes. It may also be possible to misinterpret this as a turn, which is completely different. I've heard traditional musicians using both rolls and turns.

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If you want to know more about rolls and other ornaments used in Irish music, 'The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle' is good, and is easy to adapt to the ocarina.


For notation that you are using yourself, you can do whatever you want. But when sharing or publishing music, more care is needed. I advise using Grey Larsen's notation or an equivalent that shares the same intent. If you do use grace notes to notate fingered articulations, I strongly recommend including a description of how to interpret and play them since this may be ambiguous out of context. The ocarina has a very diverse community and it would be easy for a player from a different background to misinterpret your intent.


The Piper's Corner: Understanding Bagpipe Music (web page).

Learning the Great Highland Bagpipes (Ian B Ferguson)

Learn to play the Highland Bagpipe (Andreas Hambsch)

Numerous demonstrations of highland pipe embellishments on YouTube.

The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle (Grey Larsen)

Mel Bay's Complete Irish Fiddle Player (Peter Cooper)


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