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Arpeggio in Music: Definition & Patterns

Instructor: Erika Svanoe

Erika has taught several college music courses and has a doctorate of musical arts in conducting.

In this lesson you will learn about arpeggios in music. You will learn how chords can be performed as arpeggios, and how arpeggios can be written out in music.

Definition

An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are performed one after the other instead of all at the same time. To clarify, a chord is three or more notes that are played at the same time. If the notes of a chord are broken up and played from low to high or high to low, the chord becomes an arpeggio. Think of notes as pieces of candy. If you eat a handful of candies all at the same time, this would be like playing a chord. If you eat the candies one at a time, this would be like playing an arpeggio.

Playing the notes of an arpeggio is like eating candies one at a time.
Candies

Chords Performed As Arpeggios

Some instruments, like the piano or organ, are able to play multiple notes at once. This means they can play chords. However, sometimes the composer wants a chord to be performed as an arpeggio. In the example below we see a chord in the first measure. These notes would be played at the same time. In the second measure, there is the symbol (highlighted in yellow) that tells the performer to play an arpeggio. In the third measure, you can see how the musician would perform the arpeggio, starting with the lowest note and playing one note at a time up to the highest.

The difference between a chord and arpeggio.
arpeggio

Other instruments, such as string instruments like the violin, are able to play two notes at one time. Composers will sometimes write special chords into the music called triple stops or quadruple stops where the violinist must play three or four strings at the same time. Since it is only possible to use two strings at once, the violinist must arpeggiate the chord. This means they will perform the chord as an arpeggio. You can see in the example below how a violinist would perform a triple stop and quadruple stop by arpeggiating the chord.

In order to play these chords, a violinist must arpeggiate the chord.
arpeggio

Composed Arpeggios

Sometimes a composer will write out an arpeggio with the notes already broken up. In the example below, the upper staff shows several chords that have been rhythmically broken up into arpeggios.

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