What is an Arpeggio? | How To Make, Finger, and Practice Them

Whether you are playing a cadenza in your upcoming clarinet concerto, slipping in a slick lick in your blues jam, or accompanying a music group on the piano, arpeggios are everywhere! Arpeggios are part of the fundamentals of any instrument and any style in the western music tradition. In this article, we will learn what an arpeggio is, how they are used in music, and the best ways to practice them on the piano.

So what is an arpeggio? The short answer: an arpeggio is a chord played note-by-note in an ascending or descending order. An arpeggio is similar to a broken chord, however a broken chord does not need to be played in an ascending or descending manner. An arpeggio is also similar to a scale, so let’s compare and contrast them to gain a better understanding.

Difference between Scales and Arpeggios

Differences

  • Arpeggios sometimes skip lines or spaces when written on the staff (below) while a scale does not.
  • Arpeggios use all the notes of a chord, while scales use all the notes of a key signature.
  • Arpeggios usually have 3-4 notes per octave, while scales usually have 5-7 notes per octave. 
G major scale on the staff
G major arpeggio on the staff

Similarities

  • Both are played linearly, either ascending or descending pitch.
  • Both scales and arpeggios split an octave into somewhat regular parts. In the example below, an arpeggio has 3-5 half steps between each note while a scale has 1-2.

Half Steps Between Scale Notes

C scale highlighted on keyboard

Half Steps Between Arpeggio Notes

C arpeggio highlighted on piano

Who needs to learn Arpeggios?

All musicians :). Yep it is a basic aspect of theory and technique. Whether you are a jazz musician, classical performer, or play chords for pop songs/church. Arpeggios can add movement to your piece.

Jazz musician 

Arpeggios can be used as simple fills while comping, or to add texture to your improvised solo.

Classical musician

When sight reading, if you can quickly identify a run as an arpeggio you won’t get caught up in thinking about each individual note. For example, when expert sight readers see a selection similar to this excerpt from Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1, they will identify each section as arpeggios (g arpeggios highlighted below). 

Sheet Music Arpeggio Example

Church Musician/Singer Song writer

Arpeggios can be used in accompaniment. A simple arpeggio in the left hand adds warmth as you accompany vocals or instrumentalists. 

How to Build an Arpeggio

To construct a major chord we take the first (also known as the root), the third, and the fifth notes in the scale of the chord name. Playing each note individually instead of together creates an arpeggio instead of a chord.

C major arpeggio with scale degrees

Here is the right and left hand fingering for a two octave C Major arpeggio. For a complete fingering chart of all major and minor arpeggios, refer to the bottom of the page.

C major arpeggio with fingerings

The most challenging part of the arpeggio is pulling your thumb under the rest of the hand as is the case when going from G to C in the right hand. This challenge is addressed in the next section.

How to Practice Arpeggios on Piano

For beginners

I’ve watched 5-10 arpeggio technique videos and I think this video is the best for basic technique instruction. 

Why?

3:22: Allysia goes in depth about how to tuck your thumb under and move up the keyboard. The instruction to have a tiny leap from the RH 3rd finger back to the 1st is a good way to prevent excessive arm movement. It’s also an observation I didn’t find in any other videos, so kudos to her!

6:01: Allysia gives tips for figuring out arpeggios that start on black keys. One tip is to not start on your thumb (RH) or pinky finger (LH) unless all the keys are black. I appreciate that she understands and explains the underlying logic, instead of just giving fingering charts. That said if you want fingering charts they are at the bottom of the post.

If you have followed this instruction and your fingers feel clunky, try watching the next video. 

For advanced students

This is my favorite video for advanced arpeggio studies. Watch this to speed up your arpeggios to a professional level. Nahre Sol walks through several techniques that she applied to learning one of Chopin’s Etudes. While the arpeggio pattern is unique, the tips should be applicable to more standard patterns.

Why I liked this video? This video is rich in technical exercises, some I had never heard of! (Also I love her sense of humor in the visual aids).

I’m curious if you have a favorite way to practice arpeggios? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Final practice tips

Be patient with yourself. Arpeggios require nuanced incorporation of:

  • Fingers
  • Wrist
  • Arm

It will take time to effectively coordinate all components.

Try tilting your hands slightly to the right when moving to the right and to the left when moving to the left. This allows for easier cross overs/unders.

Finally, using a bit of sustain/damper pedal really helps to smooth out hand changes. It is useful to practice with and without the pedal.

The Sound of an Arpeggio

Knowing how arpeggios can be used to add emotion to a piece helps you make better decisions as a performer, improviser, and/or composer.

Floaty/Dream Like/ Fountain

The origin of Arpeggio is the latin word “Arpeggiare” which means “to play on a harp”. Listen to the sound of the harp cadenza from “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker suite. With a flexible tempo and rhythm, and long sweeps, the sound of the arpeggios wash over you like a gurgling fountain. Or perhaps a wonderful dream that’s been infested with waltzing flowers?

Intensity/Passion

Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude Op. 25 No. 12 is a technically challenging piece. From beginning to end both hands arpeggiate up and down the piano creating a sound like waves crashing in the ocean. Don’t expect a tropical sea breeze, though, think more storm at sea. I’m guessing Chopin didn’t know how to swim.

Another well known piece that uses arpeggios to create an intense sound is Für Elise. The third section includes a brief section of A minor arpeggios.

Declaration/Triumph

Especially when an Arpeggio spells out a simple major chord and is blasted on a trumpet, it sounds like a victory cry.

Did I miss any? What is your favorite use for an arpeggio in your playing, composing, improvising? Feel free to leave a response in the comments:).

Piano Arpeggio Fingerings

The following charts provide fingerings and chord spellings so that you can learn your arpeggios in any major or minor key! Refer to the chord charts to confirm you are using the right notes. Refer to the fingering charts to make sure you are using the right fingerings.

Chord Charts

Major Chords Chart
Minor Chords Chart

Arpeggio Fingering Charts

Major Arpeggio Fingering Chart
Minor Arpeggio Fingering Chart

Conclusion

Now you should know how to construct and play any major or minor arpeggio with proper fingering. Arpeggios are a building block of music, useful for reinforcing chords and basic technique.

Some practice steps from here may include:

  1. learning all 12 major and 12 minor arpeggios for both hands
  2. using arpeggios in the LH while reading basic sheet music with chords
  3. working on arpeggios for 7th chords

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