What is the difference between an arpeggio and glissando? Is a glissando just another form of an arpeggio? I still don't exactly understand.

4 Answers 4


Adding to Aaron's answer, a glissando doesn't have to be - in fact often isn't - comprised of any particular notes. In fact, on piano, it's usually deployed by sliding along all the white keys, when maybe there are certain sharps or flats in the key concerned. The notes are played quickly, so there's little chance of discerning the 'wrong' ones!

Portamento is another variation, which is glissando taken to the nth degree, every note available, and also those in between! Works well on instruments such as violins and trombones.

Arpeggios are sometimes called 'broken chords', as that's exactly what they are - using only notes from a particular chord, either top to bottom, or, more usually, bottom to top. The word is gleaned from the way a harp could be played, plucking the notes of a chord in order. Playing all the strings consecutively would constitute a glissando.

  • 1
    Way too early to have chosen a preferred answer. Better ones may well surface later! So choosing early may deter them bothering.
    – Tim
    Jul 7, 2022 at 9:00
  • Arpeggios are bottom-to-top starting around the middle classical period to present. Prior to that, the default was top-to-bottom. So if you're playing, e.g. J.S. Bach, it's the reverse of what you'd expect from later composers. (A lot of Bach-era ornaments are flipped from what we'd expect in later music.) Jul 7, 2022 at 13:58
  • @DarrelHoffman "Arpeggio" is a broader term that you're considering. They appear up and down in every era. Chords marked with an arpeggio line, yes, downward first, then upward later.
    – Aaron
    Jul 7, 2022 at 14:19
  • FWIW, in the Engineering World, a portamento is equivalent to a "chirped frequency," as opposed to any frequency changes of discrete step size. (except of course in the digital domain a chirp may be limited by the smallest 1-bit transition size). Jul 7, 2022 at 15:03
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    @CarlWitthoft - in my part of the world, the only chirps seem to come from sparrows.
    – Tim
    Jul 7, 2022 at 15:14

'Arpeggio' is easy to define. It's a 'broken chord'. The notes of a chord played one after another rather than all at once.

'Glissando' is the equivalent for a scale. But does it step or slide between notes? Some people lock in to the terminology of the once ubiquitous Yamaha DX7 synth, which called discrete notes (like a piano or harp can do) 'glissando', a sliding pitch change 'portamento'. But hold on, trombones have been calling their characteristic sliding pitches 'glissando' for hundreds of years! And singers and string players have their own definitions of 'portamento'.

So don't be too pedantic about 'glissando' and 'portamento'. But you can be confident in distinguishing either of them from an 'arpeggio'.

  • Would you specify that an arp. is a broken chord sequentially played, all notes going in one direction? Broken chords are just that - chords with their notes broken into often random order.
    – Tim
    Jul 8, 2022 at 8:30

An arpeggio is a chord broken up into individual notes. Each individual note is heard as a discrete unit.

The video below shows a person practicing some basic arpeggios.

A glissando is a smooth slide from one pitch to another. Individual notes are not articulated as discrete pitches; they're just points along a continuous line.

The video below demonstrates a classic glissando from George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (from 0:06 to 0:09).

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    This answer implies that it is impossible to play a glissando on a discrete-pitched instrument like a piano or xylophone, which I disagree with. Jul 7, 2022 at 14:04
  • @NuclearHoagie That's a fair criticism. I'm open to suggestions on how to better explain.
    – Aaron
    Jul 7, 2022 at 14:07
  • That is a common misused of "glissando." See "portamento." And as to breaking a chord into individual notes: the risk is that something like an "arm-bar" could be claimed to be a chord, and then where are you? Jul 7, 2022 at 15:01
  • @CarlWitthoft Every single definition here refers to "broken chord". Tone clusters are pushing it. A glissando is a "glide" or "slide"; "portamento" depends on the instrument being played: it's a slide on strings or voice, but for piano, for example, it's a synonym for "portato".
    – Aaron
    Jul 7, 2022 at 15:38

According to Classical-Music (by BBC Music Magazine), a glissando is a musical slide, from one pitch to another. In other words, a smooth continuous glide going up or down between two notes. Arpeggios, on the other hand, are the notes of a chord played in rapid succession, either ascending or descending (Oxford Languages).

Basically, arpeggios are broken chords where the notes are played successively, while glissandos are more of a smoother glide.

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