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Appreciating Arpeggios on the Piano

Updated on September 23, 2012
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JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician, and author of books for children and adults.

What is an Arpeggio?

The word "arpeggio" is Italian, meaning "in the style of a harp."

Imagine someone playing the notes on a harp one after the other and you'll understand exactly how an arpeggio should sound. Like many forms of piano accompaniment, the arpeggio is based around the chords or triads popular in most styles of Western music.

Here's a picture of the keyboard and the C chord. Play the chord with each hand just to refresh your memory. The red dot represents middle C.

How to Play Arpeggios

To play an arpeggio, simply play the notes of the chord one after the other as in the diagram below.

Notice that the arpeggio uses the three notes of the chord with the root of the chord repeated again an octave higher. You can play arpeggios covering any number of octaves, although for accompaniment purposes it's best to limit them to one or two octaves.

Arpeggios with Both Hands

Here's an example of an arpeggio based on the C chord, written out for you to play with both hands.

For accompaniment purposes you might expect to use your left hand to play this type of arpeggio, but it's a good idea to practice it with both hands. This helps you get used to playing arpeggios and keeps your technical skills balanced between the hands.

Using Two Hands Together

In the next step we're going to look at a famous piece of music by J.S. Bach based entirely on arpeggios. This particular piece uses both hands to play the arpeggios, so we'll practice doing that now.

The diagram below will help you prepare for playing Bach's "Prelude in C" in Step 5. Notice how the left hand plays two notes, then the right hand plays two notes. This pattern continues until finally the right hand plays the last note -- a high E -- on its own.

Practice the pattern a few times, and then move on when you're ready.

Bach's "Arpeggio" Prelude

Finally, here's Bach's "Prelude in C" based on arpeggios.

It's not actually known as the "arpeggio" prelude, but it uses arpeggios so exclusively that it could be. It's a great piece to play once you get the hang of it.

Notice how the first note is held down with the left hand, and then the second, also with the left hand, while the notes in the right hand are released after playing. A good way to work on this is to practice one hand at a time, playing the left hand over and over until the pattern gets drummed in. The right hand is easy enough to play on its own, and things will only get confusing the first couple of times you try playing both hands together.

One way to make this easier on yourself is to keep the sustain or damper pedal depressed for each bar. That way the notes that are being released will still ring out and won't sound dry or disconnected. Purists will tell you not to do this, but I don’t think it makes any difference in the greater scheme of things. If it concerns you at all, practice it with and without the damper pedal. Then nobody can complain.

If you enjoyed this arpeggio adventure, why not check out some of my other piano related hubs? See you there!


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