Music Theory

Trill Exercises: Piano Playing Tips & Techniques

By Hannah Kendall
Image says "Trill Exercises: Piano Playing Tips & Techniques" followed by image of treble clef G marked with tr. and a wavy line.

What are piano trills? Learn all about them and how to practice trills in this article!

Piano trills occur when two notes are played alternately in rapid succession. The effect creates a fast, smooth, continuous sound. Trills fall under the broader category of ornaments, which include mordents, appoggiaturas and grace notes. These ornaments are decorative embellishments that add flair, variety, and virtuosity to a piece of music. Plus, they’re fun to play! In this article, we’ll explain how to identify piano trills and how to play a trill on the piano. 

How many notes should be in a trill?

The exact number of notes in a trill can vary depending on the tempo, musical style, and preference of the performer. Typically the minimum number of notes in a trill is four. While some trills are written out exactly, most of the time the only indication in the music is the length of time the trill should be sustained. In classical music, performers often have the freedom to interpret trills as they choose as long as they follow the style and character of the piece. This means the number of notes is flexible, as long as the rapid alternation between two notes is maintained. 

How to play a trill on the piano

Trills consist of the principal note and the auxiliary note. The principal note is the note written in the music. It is the main note the trill is centered around. The auxiliary note is the next diatonic note above the principal note and is not written in the music. If the key is C major and the principal note is G, the auxiliary note would be A. If the key is D major, and the principal note is E, the auxiliary note is F#. 

When playing a trill, it is often the practice to start on the auxiliary note and end on the principal note. Always remember that the trill must continue for the full length of the note marked. For example, if there’s a quarter note with a trill marking over it, trill for one beat. When practicing trills, it is always more important to play evenly rather than as fast as you can! Smooth, even notes create a satisfying effect compared to an uneven or inconsistent rhythm. 

How do you know when to play a trill in a piece of music?

Trills are marked in a few different ways. They’re usually marked with the letters tr or t, often followed by a wavy line. This wavy line is called a chevron. In some music, only the wavy line, or chevron, is used. Below are a few ways trills can be marked; however they all indicate the same effect. 

Images shows three types of trills over the note treble clef G. First image shows tr. above the note. Second image is marked with a wavy line. Third image is marked with tr. followed by a wavy line.

In this video, Mr. Hoffman demonstrates how to identify and play trills in Minuet in G Major. The technique demonstrated can be applied to any trill:


See if you can follow along and practice your own piano trill on B!

Trill exercises: Piano playing tips & recommendations

A few things to keep in mind when practicing trills: 

  • Keep your fingers relaxed, curved, and close to the keys
  • Keep your wrists loose and flexible
  • Use hand motion, rocking your wrist slightly as you play
  • Start by practicing trills slowly and gently
  • Even when the speed increases, notes should be played gently and with ease

To practice piano trills, start by holding down the principal note while quickly repeating the auxiliary note many times. This allows the pianist to hear what the trill sounds like without needing to alternate notes. Next, using a metronome, practice alternating between the notes slowly and evenly. As you gradually speed up the metronome, remember to keep your hand and fingers relaxed. Increase the metronome speed a little at a time until you can play the trill up to tempo. 

How to improve with piano trills

As with any piano skill, trills improve with dedicated practice. Make sure you practice trills between each consecutive finger number, 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, and 4-5. Start slowly, make sure to alternate evenly, and gradually increase speed. 

Trills often end with a brief flourish of grace notes to wrap them up artistically. In some situations, this may make it necessary to execute a trill with fingers 3 and 1, or even 4 and 1. In the first example below, the grace notes at the end of the trill start on a white key, and so the trill can be comfortably played with fingers 2 and 3, with the thumb on the first grace note. But the second example has the first grace note on F-sharp, which would be more awkward to play on the thumb. So the trill is played with fingers 4 and 1, with the second finger crossing over to play the F-sharp grace note. 

Two examples of a trill with grace notes. First image shows trill over a treble clef A with grace notes G and A following. Second image shows trill over G with grace notes F# and G following
Playing other finger power exercises, such as scales, arpeggios, and chords will help strengthen your hands and fingers and make trills easier to execute. There are even some finger exercises specifically designed to improve trills, such as Hanon’s Exercise No. 30 from The Virtuoso Pianist

This exercise helps strengthen trills between fingers 1-2 and 4-5. 

How to trill faster on piano

Although this may seem counterintuitive, the key to trilling faster on piano is to practice trills slowly! When learning a complex motor skill, the brain needs to create new neural pathways. Repeating an action slowly and accurately will allow these pathways to form and become strong. Once the pathway is solidly built, the skill can be executed with amazing quickness! The brain is very good at speeding a process up once it is well-learned. 

Get ready to enjoy playing with piano trills!

Don’t wait until you encounter a piece of music with a difficult trill in it to start working on this fun and exciting skill. Trills can add so much color, delight, and dramatic intensity to a piece of music. For some inspiration, listen to the trills in Nocturne Op. 20 in C# Minor by Frederic Chopin, L’Isle Joyeuse by Claude Debussy, and Ritual Dance of Fire by Cziffra Gyӧrgy

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