When I hear the term "arpeggio", to me, it is much more specific than just a broken chord. A broken chord, obviously is any chord that isn't played as a block chord. This could mean anything from alternating pairs of notes to Alberti bass and everything in between. But when I hear the term "arpeggio", I don't just think of a broken chord but a very specific broken chord, where everything ascends or descends in order. Thus, I don't think of Alberti bass as being an "arpeggio" since it is Low, High, Middle, High, and not ascending or descending in order.

But, I have heard several music theorists and even analyses of Beethoven's symphonies that refer to arpeggios more in general as any broken chord whatsoever. I have problems with this definition. I will use specific musical examples whenever possible to illustrate different forms of broken chords.

First, I will show what is undoubtedly an arpeggio, and what I think of as the definition of an arpeggio.

enter image description here

As you can see, whenever I am asked "Hey, what is the definition of an arpeggio?", I would answer something along these lines:

Imagine that you have a chord. Now break up that chord into its individual notes. Now, put those notes in ascending or descending order. There, you have an arpeggio. You can add octave extensions obviously, have chordal arpeggios, or even have an "arpeggio of arpeggios" figuration, where on both the macro scale(all the chords) and the micro scale(each individual chord), an arpeggio forms. You can also have the arpeggio move back and forth. As long as each chord tone is reached in ascending or descending order within an area of a few notes and this continues throughout the figuration, you have an arpeggio.

But, as I said, quite a few music theorists use the term arpeggio to mean any broken chord. Here are a few more examples of what I would consider to just be broken chords, not arpeggios:

enter image description here

This is a form of broken chord that I mentioned right at the beginning of my post, Alberti bass. This is very close to the arpeggio I showed earlier in its form. Only difference is that it goes Low, High, Middle, High, instead of in ascending or descending order. The start of the melody here though is an arpeggio, for sure and for certain.

enter image description here

Here, before the triplets, you simply have 2 notes alternating within a single harmony with the exception of the second beat of measure 7(where the note in the middle voice simply repeats). This is very similar to Alberti bass, except, only 2 notes are involved. At the triplets, you have an ascending arpeggio.

enter image description here

This is a corner case, because it is debatable whether or not it is a broken chord at all, given that it is just octaves. However, if we treat octaves as a broken chord, than this certainly shouldn't be in the definition of an arpeggio.

So, does arpeggio really mean any form of broken chord? Or does it mean more specifically, a broken chord in ascending or descending order?

  • 1
    It's worth noting that that "corner case" in the last example has a name: it's not an Alberti bass, but rather a Murky bass (from the German Murky-Bässe). And no, most people wouldn't call those "arpeggios."
    – Athanasius
    Nov 2, 2019 at 5:30
  • This guy is talking about arpeggiations youtube.com/watch?v=L1Q_d41t_vU&t=2m56s The designers of the instrument allow for example UP-DOWN, AS-PLAYED and RAND orderings. I wonder if technology changes the meanings of words! ;) Imma arpeggiatize sum arps nao \o/ Nov 2, 2019 at 7:22
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    In your "corner case" of tremolo octaves, they are neither an arpeggio nor a broken chord. They're just an interval (octave). Especially since they are stagnant while the chords in the treble staff ascend (first system). I suppose you could argue they are from a C minor chord given the Key and usage, but a "broken chord" should contain enough notes to be identified as a chord, and the same goes for arpeggio. Nov 5, 2019 at 17:40

5 Answers 5


All arpeggios are broken chords, but not all broken chords are arpeggios. Like all sparrows are birds, but not all birds are sparrows.

Somewhat officially, in exams, broken chords are specified (in early grades), which consist of the notes from chords (mainly triads) played in particular orders, but not directly ascending/descending. Later, arpeggios are expected, and they always need playing in ascending/desending order. Unless they're contrary - at which point they're labelled as such.

'Arpeggiare', mainly found as a mark on piano music, means play the notes in ascending order - harp-like.

Alberti bass can be arpeggiated notes, but is also going to consist of broken chords, probably more usually.


But when I hear the term "arpeggio", I don't just think of a broken chord but a very specific broken chord, where everything ascends or descends in order.

That seems to be the particular meaning of arpeggio as an embellishment - the wavy line next to a chord...

enter image description here

Regarding the meaning for arpeggio for any kind of broken chord, it might be worthwhile to consider how the term is used in Schenkerian analysis. Personally, I know only a little about Schenkerian analysis, but it does use the term arpeggiation as a fundamental concept.

It's interesting how arpeggiation is identified on an abstract level even when the actual line might not literally be an arpeggio.

Is Alberti bass really a type of arpeggio?

Direction does seem to be a factor in the meaning of arpeggio. But then an example like this...

enter image description here

...would probably be described by many as an arpeggio despite all the alternating directions!

When such an arpeggio is compared to an Alberti bass...

enter image description here

...the thing that stands out to me is the repetition of the small figure in the Alberti bass.

Maybe the important thing with an arpeggio isn't a purely ascending or descending line, but the absence of repetition.


Many people will think of a typical arpeggio in piano music as a chord written with a wavy vertical line in front of the chord. In Chopin's Etude Op. 10, No. 11 this is pursued to an extreme degree:

Chopin Etude 11

But the terms "arpeggio" and "arpeggiated" are also applied in various other ways.

Is Alberti bass really a type of arpeggio?

Well, Alberti bass is often defined as a special type of arpeggiated accompaniment where the notes are played low, high, middle, high.

Beethovens Moonlight Sonata has another type of arpeggiated figure:

Beethoven Moonlight Sonata

The term "arpeggio" is also applied when you talk about practicing scales and triads in that many people call it scales and arpeggios. Here is an example for violin:

Violin A Major Scale and Arpeggio

And below is an image showing another type of arpeggio; it is from Bach's Chaconne for solo violin where the violin player is supposed to play arpeggio. Bach has only written out the arpeggio for the first 8 thirty-second notes, and then he has written the term "arpeggio" indicating that the violin player should continue to play the chords in a similar way:

Bach Chaconne

Some of you might wonder why Bach suggests that the arpeggio starts on the middle note F and not the lowest one D. That is a violin technical matter. The hand is in a high position (5th position). The F is played on the lowest string, the D is the open D-string, the A is played on the A string an octave above the open A. After a short while the sequence changes so that the lowest note is played first. You can see the sequence in which the notes are played on this image:

enter image description here

Note that the dynamic signs mp and dim. is the editor's suggestion. Bach did not write dynamics in this piece. Thus the performer can make his own dynamics.


Wikipedia (and my personal experience) agrees with you, that an arpeggio is a type of broken chord with notes in strictly ascending/descending order:

A broken chord is a chord broken into a sequence of notes. A broken chord may repeat some of the notes from the chord and span one or more octaves.

An arpeggio is a type of broken chord, in which the notes that compose a chord are played or sung in a rising or descending order. An arpeggio may also span more than one octave.



OP: "Does arpeggio really mean any form of broken chord?"

Yes. If you have a series of individual notes which when combined make a known chord (i.e. not a scale or "cluster chord") that selection may be described as an arpeggio regardless of sequence. If asked to arpeggiate a chord you might play the notes in order, but you don't have to (the written chord is often not even a complete voicing). When a teacher instructs a student to "play the arpeggio" in order this is merely a technical exercise. Much like scales, arpeggios are rehearsed and played in order ... and then in non-sequential "patterns." They typically appear in performed music incomplete and/or out of order such as your Alberti bass example. Arpeggio is a pedagogical concept important for learning music, much the way "sight words" are crucial for toddlers learning to read [language]. Being able to see a series of notes as an "arpeggio" makes it significantly easier to read and perform. Furthermore, although I have no evidence to prove the following claim, it would not surprise me to learn that "broken chord" got its start in piano lesson books to make it easier for young children to comprehend, since vocabulary is a common obstacle amongst beginners (much like "hairpins" are the common term for crescendo / decrescendo).

Tim: 'Arpeggiare', mainly found as a mark on piano music, means play the notes in ascending order - harp-like.

True, and helps my point as the written chord is often not in root position and spans multiple octaves. For example, 5th - 3rd 8va - root 15va.

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