To produce an arpeggio, a musician performs the notes of a chord one at a time rather than all at once. And this presents a conundrum. While most people think of a chord as a “block of sound,” an arpeggio retains its “chordiness” even as its notes sound one after the other.
Our English word “arpeggio” comes from the Italian word arpeggiare “to play upon the harp.” While a harp can play several notes simultaneously, that’s not what we think of when we think of harp music. That “angelic”sound that tingles our spines happens when harpists “break” chords – play the notes of a chord one at a time.“Consolation #3,” by Franz Liszt
The arpeggio is one of three classes of melodic figures, the other two being scale figures and neighbor figures. Classifying the arpeggio as a class of melodic figures implies subclasses. An arpeggio can be long or short. It can cover a small or large span of notes. It can ascend, descend, or combine direction changes to create arcs, wiggles, or dramatic zigzags. The example below contains some of the arpeggio figures I’ve named during my research in Figuring Out Melody.
Unlike a chord, which can only be played on instruments that can produce several notes at once, an arpeggio can be played on any instrument (including the voice).“Prelude #1/Ave Maria,” by J.S. Bach/Charles Gounod
1) By far, the most common use of arpeggios is found in accompaniments.“Moonlight Sonata,” by Ludwig von Beethoven
“Someone Like You,” by Adelle
Here’s an observation to draw from both of these examples. When the accompaniment bustles with activity, the melody remains simple. Simple might include sustained notes, repeated gestures.
2) An arpeggio figure can adapt to different harmony to create a melody.“Prelude #1,,” by J.S. Bach
3) When using arpeggios in a melody, it’s a good idea to avoid “too-symetrical” patterns
Bach’s “Prelude #1 in C Major” is the granddaddy of all arpeggio pieces, ANd for good reason. It offers an invaluable lesson for making arpeggios melodic. Don’t merely repeat an arpeggio verbatim. Rework it so that it sounds the same, but different. In this case, Bach follows the broad 5-note arpeggio with a little “echo” of the last three notes.
4) Given the same number of notes, an arpeggio figure will cover more registral territory than stepwise motion.“The Circle Game,” by Joni Mitchell
5) An arpeggio figure can serve as a pickup.“Morning has Broken,” traditional Scottish Gaelic hymn tune (“Bunessan”), made famous by Cat Stevens
“On The Blue Danube,” by Johann Strauss
6) An arpeggio figure can serve as the melodic outline for an entire tune.
In this example, both the melodic figures AND the underlying structure are based around chord tones. (The second part uses a scale as the framework – another common foundation.)“Clementine,” by H.S. Thompson and Perry Montrose
Even the few examples above demonstrate that arpeggios are incredibly versatile. With the right rhythm, the right dynamics, and the right context, you can express anything you might want with arpeggio figures. That said, because of their “blatant chordiness,” we find a few places that arpeggios show up frequently. We’ve already noted accompaniments. Here are two more.
1) children’s songs and folk tunes.
(noting that many “childrens’ songs” begin as folk melodies) When children learn their colors, they don’t start with fuschia and taupe. They learn the primary and secondary colors first. (Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, and orange. Oh yes, and black and white, which don’t appear on color charts, but why is not a matter for us today.) Does music have a parallel palete of simple harmonies? It would seem so, as so many childrens’ songs focus on little more than chord tones.“The Wheels On the Bus,” by Verna Hills and
2) bugle tunes.
Of necessity, music for the bugle must consist of arpeggios, as the only notes on a bugle are notes in the overtone series.“Reveille,” traditional and “Taps,” by Daniel Butterfield
- Compose a piece made entirely of a pair of arpeggios, similar to Bach’s Prelude #1 above. If you hope to avoid sounding “classical,” use chords or a chord progression from another style. There are two keys to making this sort of piece work. First, to keep the melody line (top or soprano voice) “motivated” or “intriguing.” Also, find just the right moments to bring in some interesting harmonic diversions to keep things interesting. Bach’s prelude offers several examples of each aim.
- Compose a simple accompaniment made entirely or arpeggios. Adele uses a repating 4-bar pattern. Consider that an option. Beethoven follows a descending bass line, another option. Once you establish a satisfactory groove, add a melody made of very few notes, which is true of both Beethoven and Adelle.
- Think of three people who call or text you frequently. Write a bugle tune for each person. In other words, find a way to use one 3-Note chord to capture the essence of your friend/family member.
- Compose a childrens song about social distancing and/or wearing masks.
- Invent a line of lyrics with a first line that begins with the words, “Why don’t you …” and a second line that answers, “Because I …” Use arpeggio figures for these two pickup gestures. Extra credit: Have one of the arpeggios ascend and the other descend.
broken chord; arpeggiation; accompanimental figures;