An arpeggio is a fundamental musical technique that involves playing the notes of a chord in a specific order. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced musician, understanding what an arpeggio is and how to play it can enhance your musical skills and add depth to your compositions. In this article, we will explore the definition, history, and various types of arpeggios in music.
What is an arpeggio? An arpeggio refers to a broken chord where notes are played sequentially rather than simultaneously. It originates from the Italian term “arpeggiare,” which means “to play on a harp” (“arpa” is Italian for “harp”). They are common in guitar and piano music, as both instruments can play chords and individual notes. Guitarists and pianists use arpeggios when transitioning through chord progressions note by note. The concept of arpeggio is applicable to other melodic instruments capable of playing single notes as well.
Arpeggio, Chords & Scales
Initially, let’s discuss some basics. In your guitar lessons, you may have already encountered scales like the major and pentatonic scales. These are frequently used in rock and pop music. Scales are linear sequences of notes organized by specific intervals within a particular key. Spanning from the root note to the next octave. For example, a G major scale starts with its root note G and proceeds through A, B, C, D, E and F#, ending at G an octave higher.
When playing a solo over a chord progression in a specific key, you can use notes from the corresponding scale for that key. An I-IV-V progression in G major consists of chords G (first), C (fourth), and D (fifth) based on degrees of the G major scale; using notes from this scale over these chords will produce harmonious results. They are also ordered arrangements of individual notes but form chords when combined.
In many popular rock and pop songs featuring chord progressions outside a single key, extra techniques may be needed for solos. If there is an A-D-E progression in A major followed by an F chord not belonging to that key. Playing an A-major-scale-based solo over this F chord would sound dissonant or strange. Knowing shapes for an F-major arpeggio can be helpful during such instances in your lead playing.
Arpeggio & Triads
To understand arpeggios, start with three-note chords called triads. A major triad is formed by stacking the thirds of a major scale, i.e., the root, third, and fifth notes. For example, an A major arpeggio consists of individual notes A, C#, and E. In a minor triad, the third degree is lowered by a half-step. An A minor triad consists of A, C, and E. Practice others like major seventh (root, third and fifth plus the seventh note), minor seventh (root, flatted third, fifth and flatted seventh), and dominant seventh (root, third, fifth and flatted seventh).
Arpeggios can be as complex as chords. Aim to master various shapes under the CAGED System. You can do this by extending them through multiple octaves starting with different root notes on strings. Even with a few variations, you can improve your soloing; try applying them to a 12-bar blues progression for practice.
Types of Patterns
An arpeggio is typically defined as a broken chord played sequentially from its lowest to the highest note, or the reverse. However, the specific lowest and highest notes of a chord can differ.
- Triad beginning with the root: When performing a C major arpeggio, a player can start on the root note, C. They would then proceed to the next scale degree, E (the third in a C major scale), followed by G (the fifth scale degree of the C major scale). Next, they would play a C one octave higher than the starting pitch and continue this pattern upwards. The direction can also be reversed, moving from the highest note to the lowest.
- Arpeggiating a chord from a different scale degree: A C major arpeggio can start on E (the major third) or G (the fifth), maintaining the same pattern.
- Expanding beyond triads: They apply to various chord types, not just major triads. Minor chords can be deconstructed into minor arpeggios, as can seventh chords. For example, a G major seventh chord incorporates the F♯ chord tone alongside G, B, and D. To perform a descending arpeggio on this chord from the third scale degree, you would play: B, G, F♯, and D. Next, play another B one octave lower than the starting point and repeat the sequence.
Arpeggios are commonly utilized by guitarists across genres, especially in classical and jazz music. There are two primary ways to incorporate arpeggios into your playing:
- Arpeggiate chords: Instead of strumming chords, pick or pluck individual notes on the fretboard, a technique employed by artists like Joni Mitchell, Peter Buck, and Jim Hall. This method demands dexterity in both hands for accurate fingering and consistent rhythms.
- Integrate arpeggios into solos: While beginners often rely on a single scale for soloing—such as major or minor pentatonic scales—more advanced players adapt their improvisation to chord progressions and align their solo notes with the underlying chords. Playing arpeggios along the guitar neck can resemble riff-playing and assist in finding a solo pattern for any chord encountered. The sweep-picking technique enables heavy metal and jazz fusion guitarists to rapidly navigate multi-string arpeggios.
Arpeggios are prevalent in both classical and popular music. Classical masterpieces like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Bach’s Art of the Fugue feature rich piano arpeggios, while virtuoso jazz soloists such as Herbie Hancock skillfully perform them on solos and melodic motifs.
To play piano arpeggios, break down block chords into individual notes, maintaining a consistent rhythm. For extended arpeggios, use the proper technique by crossing one hand over the other to ensure a seamless progression along the keyboard. Enhance your arpeggio playing by familiarizing yourself with each note in a chord shape and devising patterns to smoothly navigate through all notes in ascending and descending order.
The Roland Jupiter-4 and Sequential Circuits Prophet V were among the first widely-known synthesizers to feature an arpeggiator, originally released in 1978. As the 1980s began, more manufacturers like KORG and Oberheim started including arpeggiators in their devices. This functionality became a staple in various music genres and media, from pop and rock to film and TV scores, defining the “sound of the ’80s.”
Iconic examples include New Order’s “Blue Monday” bassline, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” synth riff, or Vangelis’ end title sequence for the 1984 sci-fi film Blade Runner. The arpeggiator played a crucial role in shaping these memorable aspects of ’80s culture.
Arpeggiators significantly contributed to the emergence of novel dance music styles. By providing accurate and consistent automated performances, they enabled the growth of previously unknown genres such as house and techno. Listen to the arpeggiated introduction in Frankie Knuckles’ iconic Chicago house track “Your Love:”
After exploring the arpeggiator’s history, let’s examine typical patterns found in many hardware synths and software arpeggiators.
All arpeggiators operate on a fundamental concept: activate it, press a chord, and a series of notes will play. Simple!
Most arpeggiators feature a “hold” or “latch” button to remember the last chord played and continue the arpeggio until a new chord is input.
The specific pattern depends on the selected setting. While names vary across products, common styles are:
– “Up”: From lowest to highest note.
– “Down”: From highest to lowest note.
– “Converge”: Starts with the lowest note then the highest note, moving towards the chord’s centre.
– “Diverge”: Begins with central notes, progressing outwards (to highest and lowest notes).
– “Random”: Generates random note order.
Arpeggiators in DAW
Numerous software instruments feature integrated arpeggiators, ranging from basic versions in vintage hardware synth emulations to more advanced ones that enable customizing velocities and intricate patterns. Arpeggiators in DAWs generate patterns using MIDI data, meaning the MIDI information from a played chord passes through the arpeggiator before reaching the software instrument without altering the original piano roll notes.
Arpeggiators can also function as independent MIDI effects, with each DAW implementing them differently:
1. Ableton Live: The built-in Arpeggiator MIDI effect works on any MIDI track and software instrument.
2. Logic Pro X: The built-in Arpeggiator MIDI effect is compatible with any MIDI track and software instrument.
3. FL Studio: Access the built-in Arpeggiator under Miscellaneous Channel Settings for all Instrument Channels.
4. Studio One: Find the Arpeggiator under Note FX within the Instrument tab on the screen’s right side.
5. Reaper: Utilize JS MIDI Arpeggiator to create arpeggios (see this video for guidance).
For DAWs without a built-in arpeggiator, like Pro Tools, third-party arpeggiator plugins are available. Use these by placing them on a MIDI track and routing its output into another track’s input containing a software instrument.
In conclusion, arpeggios are a fundamental element of music that adds depth and complexity to any composition. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, understanding and practising arpeggios can greatly enhance your playing and overall musical ability. By incorporating arpeggios into your practice routine and compositions, you can unlock a whole new level of musical expression and creativity. So, why not give arpeggios a try and see how they can take your music to the next level?