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What’s an Arpeggio?

The arpeggio is one of the most popular techniques used in production today. But what are arpeggios exactly? In this article, we’ll be taking a close look at the features and history of the arpeggio to make you an expert in no-time.

Speaking the language of music.

Once you start delving into music production, one thing that becomes apparent pretty quickly is the large number of techniques available to use. Creating music itself can be very personal, but the way in which we do it is often influenced by community and current styles. Among the most influential techniques out there (and oldest!) is none other than the ‘Arpeggio’. Stemming from Italian, which was once known as the ‘language of music’, arpeggios have been an incredibly important technique in composition and performance. You'll find that arpeggios still play a central role in music for the club and concert hall alike.

Playing a harp

Playing a chord one note at a time by plucking individual strings.

Play the harp.

To get a better grasp on what arpeggios exactly are, let’s start by taking a closer look at the word itself. The word ‘arpeggio’ comes from the Italian root ‘arpeggiare’ which literally means ‘play the harp’. If you imagine someone playing the harp, you can probably picture the performer gracefully strumming their hands up and down the strings. The gesture of playing chords through strumming each note, one after the other, is how we arrive at the word ‘arpeggio’ in modern music. Nowadays, an arpeggio can be thought of as the performance of a chord broken-up with each note played one after the other. This can be from the lowest to highest note, highest to lowest, or maybe something in between!

If we look at current pop music, we can see that arpeggios are featured quite frequently. From Rae Sremmurd’s ‘Powerglide’, to Radiohead’s ‘Weird Fishes/Arpeggi’ you can instantly recognize this technique by listening to the notes repeat one after another, creating a sense of the chord they would produce if all the notes were played at the same time. The popularity of arpeggios today can partially be attributed to the rise of computer-based music production. Whether you prefer music hardware or software, you’re bound to run into the ‘arpeggiator.’ This is a production tool which takes a group of notes and plays them in a sequence which you usually can customize. Arpeggiators came from the invention of sequencing tools in the middle of the 20th century, where electronic music studios worked on developing ways of generating musical patterns.

Grades 3 – 5 Building Arpeggios by Melodics Preview
A powerful tool.

While the current state of the arpeggio is strong, it’s also important to remember that long before the first electronic music studios at Columbia or WDR, the arpeggio was a powerful compositional tool. For example, you can see the roots in our current fondness for arpeggios in music written for the piano. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon the graceful beauty of Bach’s Fugue No. 1 in C major, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, or even Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in A major. In each of these masterpieces, harmony and melody are unified in a sense, where the sustain of each note carries the feeling of the chord through the melody.

If you’re interested in getting more experience learning and performing new arpeggiation styles, be sure to check out our arpeggio course, Building Arpeggios. This curated lesson gives you a wide-angle view of the various ways arpeggios can be used to craft interesting music productions. And if that doesn’t feed your craving, our minimalism course Minimal Music will also throw some challenging arpeggios at you!


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