I always thought of them as synonyms, but googling around found that some people see them as different, with the distinctions changing depending on who you ask.

Is there a formal distinction between them? If so, what's the difference?

  • How is it any different? From googling around, I got that it's the same. You can also see it on Wiki – Shevliaskovic Jun 28 '15 at 19:02
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    @Shevliaskovic Wikipedia is edited by different people, and the parts relevant to this question are not sourced. This shows in its inconsistency, in one part mentioning that they are synonyms, and in other mentioning that arpeggio is a type of broken chord (which is a very clear distinction). I found many results claiming that there are distinctions, for example: abrsm.org/forum/index.php?showtopic=39503 and pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/1075016.html – Lyd Jun 28 '15 at 19:08
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    Add them to the question! – Shevliaskovic Jun 28 '15 at 19:09
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    @Shevliaskovic It's unimportant to the question. There's no reason to. Only reason I posted them is because your comment implies that all that can be found is sources claiming that they are the same, which is far from being true. Just wanted to make that clear. And it's not just forums, check Tim's answer. – Lyd Jun 28 '15 at 19:14

Well every arpeggio is a broken chord, but not every broken chord is an arpeggio.

A broken chord is just as it sounds: a chord that is broken up in some way, shape, or form where you are not playing the the full chord at once.

An arpeggio is a specific way of playing a broken chord that has a defined texture to it. While the definition is not a very strict, it is typically characterized by playing one note of a chord at a time that aren't sustained in a pattern. While you may see an arpeggio where two or more notes are played at once or some notes may overlap in a sustain like manner this is more an exception then the norm. An arpeggio is also typically rhythmically straight or if not repeated in a pattern. It's really the only way instruments that can only play one note at a time can play a broken chord.

Some may say that there is a defined pattern to an arpeggio, but that's not the case. This is due to how musician are typically introduced to the concept of an arpeggio though excessive books where they play up and down the notes of a chord and think every arpeggio is the same.

As an example let's look at a standard open E major chord on a guitar.

If I just play all the notes at the same time then I'm just playing a chord. If I play one note of the chord after another and don't let them all ring out then I am playing an arpeggio. If I play the lower 3 strings then the top 3 strings it's just a broken chord since it really doesn't have the texture we are looking for in arpeggio. If I play one note at a time, but let them ring this is also just a broken chord for the same reason. If I play the notes one at time, but play the last two notes at the same time it will depend on the exact execution, but most of the time it would be an arpeggio.

  • So, are you saying that an arp. or a broken chord won't need each and every note sequentially - as in your guitar example, the G# on the bottom string would be missing, so the sequence goes E,B,E etc? – Tim Jun 29 '15 at 7:31

Broken chords are in essence just a type of arpeggiation the difference being the order in which the notes are played.

This is more like an arpeggio.


And this is something more like a broken chord.

enter image description here


An arpeggio literally sounds, as its etymology suggests, like a harp. The notes run into each other for a rippling effect and the device has become a standard technique in program music used to suggest wind, water, or any smoothly continuous action, and also in film music to depict any dream-like blurring of reality. Arpeggios are represented on the page by a single chord preceded by a vertical wavy-like character. A broken chord, in contrast, is a sequence of separate notes, so written, which clearly outline a chord. Indeed, it could be more accurately termed a melodicized chord. Consider the guitar introduction to the Beatles' song, "I Feel Fine:" Wikipedia characterizes the passage as an "arpeggiated riff." But it is actually a well-defined sequence of broken chords falling predictably through a secondary progression. A Beatles' song with a true (and literal) arpeggiation may be found in the accompaniment of "She's Leaving Home."

  • It's always nice to see songs cited whose intros I can play in my head at will ^_^ – Gaurav Oct 20 '17 at 3:51

ABRSM seems to think there is a difference in that broken chords are played, in the earlier exams, as 1,3,5,3,5,8,5,8,10,8, then in reverse. Or using a 4 note pattern. Sorry, I don't have exam books to hand till tomorrow!. Whereas arpeggios go 1,3,5,8,5,3,1, or 1,3,5,8,10,12,15,12,10,8,5,3,1 for two octaves, etc. The sequence would appear to be different, though the notes involved are the same three, in major and minor. Obviously with diminished and 6ths and 7ths, 4 notes come into play, so to speak.

So there seems to be an official difference at least.


"Arpeggio" is literally "like a harp". Notes are not stopped before playing the next note. If you take a look how a harp plays a multi-octave chord or run, you have to alternate hands and play the fingers one by one (to give the inactive hand time to move to its next position without interrupting the flow of the arpeggiated phrase).

When arpeggiating on a bowed string instrument (when done in a continuous back-and-forth motion, you might see an actual "arpeggio" instruction in the score but otherwise you have to arpeggiate even single chords with more than two notes on most modern strings), you move the bow across strings in an unstaggered smooth motion, sounding two strings simultaneously temporarily. A broken chord, in contrast, will try sounding only one note at once and will have the bow either stop (with or without direction change) or bounce in order to achieve that.


Arpeggio as a type of broken chord. cf alberti bass - also a broken chord.


Broken chords are just what it sounds like, a chord that isn't a block chord. Arpeggios are a specific type of broken chord where it goes from highest to lowest or vice versa in pitch. These are both examples of arpeggios:

enter image description here

In this case, you have stacatto arpeggiation ascending before the triplet.

enter image description here

Here you have arpeggios both ascending and descending

There is another version of broken chords that is very common. That is Alberti bass. Instead of going Low Middle High or vice versa, it goes Low High Middle High.

enter image description here

This is a very basic example of Alberti bass. In essence this could be inverted so it goes High Low Middle Low, or there could be more than 3 notes in the alberti bass sort of like this:

Root Octave Third Octave Fifth Octave

In short, broken chord is an ambiguous term for any way that a block chord can be broken up and arpeggio is a specific type of broken chord.


Using a three-note chord as an example, an arpeggio would refer to all three notes sounding separately, in any order. However, usually an arpeggio includes all the notes of a chord before repeating one. An arpeggio could go C-E-G-E or C-E-G-C but wouldn't normally be C-E-C-E-G. A broken chord would have two of the three notes sounding together and the third sounding separately (eg. C,E/G or G,C/E) In certain settings, broken chord notes may sound separately but still give a broken chord effect. If I played C-E-C-E-G-E-G-E, it would sound broken because my ear would associate two of the pitches together at a time. The notes of an arpeggiated chord of more than three notes would still all sound separately, but the chord could be broken with different combinations. For example, a four-note chord could be broken as one note separate then three together, or two notes then two notes, or one note then one note then two notes, etc. Many classical piano sonatas and sonatinas use arpeggiated chords in the form the Alberti bass. Chopin waltzes make use of a broken chord accompaniment.

  • "An arpeggio would refer to all three notes sounding separately, in any order"-- A citation and perhaps some further qualification would be nice here. The Wikipedia page says that"the notes that compose a chord are played or sung in a rising or descending order.", while The Oxford Dictionary of Music says that the notes are "heard one after the other from the bottom upwards, or sometimes from the top downwards.". – David Bowling Feb 4 '18 at 22:11
  • That is interesting. Would they call it a broken chord simply because the notes are not arranged from low to high or high to low, even if they do not repeat a chord note before playing all of them? If the pattern continues, it does go low to high or high to low, just off-set. Say E-G-C-E-G-C-E-G or C-G-E-C-G-E-C. I find the "high to low/low to high" part of the definition rather restrictive. The biggest difference between an arpeggio and a broken chord is whether the notes are all sounded individually or if some sound together, and what the aural effect is. – Heather S. Feb 5 '18 at 12:54
  • Restrictive in what way? Defining a term does not restrict what you may play. In the absence of any citations, your answer seems like something you made up based on your own observations and opinions. Reading the Wikipedia entry I linked: an arpeggio is a special case of a broken chord in which the notes are played in ascending or descending order, while a broken chord is a sequence of the notes which form a chord, and may include repetition of notes. I see no order restriction on broken chords here. – David Bowling Feb 5 '18 at 15:42
  • It does seem that "broken chord" and "arpeggio" are often used interchangeably in practice. Here is an interesting forum discussion on the matter. But it still seems to me that your definition of a broken chord as "two of the three notes sounding together" is simply wrong. – David Bowling Feb 5 '18 at 15:45
  • I still believe that the main point is the aural effect of an arpeggio and a broken chord. The arpeggio, regardless of note order, will not repeat a note in the chord before all notes are played. A broken chord could repeat a note before others are played, even if the notes are sounded individually, I address this in my first post. This affects how the ear interprets the pitch grouping, and whether the chord is whole or broken. If I play C-E-A-G-C-E-A-G, who's to say I am not playing two chords, one ascending and one descending. C-E-A up, A-G-C down. – Heather S. Feb 5 '18 at 18:11

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