How to Play Arpeggios on the Piano
According to Wikipedia, an arpeggio is:
"... a musical technique where notes in a chord are played or sung in sequence, one after the other, rather than ringing out simultaneously."
What Are Arpeggios?
Arpeggios are simply broken chords where the notes are played one after the other in succession. They make it easy to move up and down the piano keyboard quickly and efficiently.
Like other technical aspects of piano playing, you’ll find arpeggios in music of all styles, from classical to rock. Like any other technical skill, your ability to play arpeggios on the piano will improve with practice. Here's a piece you can use to help master the art of arpeggio playing.
Follow this link to go straight to my exercise piece "Arpeggio Practice" which you can listen to as an mp3 file, and then print and play it yourself.
Arpeggio Learning Method
To start getting familiar with arpeggios, follow these simple steps and refer to the images below for extra help:
- Begin by playing a C chord in root position with the right hand, C, E, & G. The notes of the C chord are indicated in blue, with each of the notes named "C" slightly darker for ease of reference.
- Now change to the 1st inversion of the C chord with E on the bottom, or the notes E, G, & C. Then move to the 2nd inversion with G as the bottom note, or the notes G, C, & E. You'll see examples of each inversion below.
What do you find hardest about playing arpeggios?
Well done! Now that you've got the notes under your fingers it's time to turn these broken chords into proper arpeggios. To do that, you're going to need to stretch your fingers a little bit.
The process is quite simple once you get the hang of it:
- Start by playing a C chord (C-E-G) with fingers 1, 3 and 5. Then change to fingers 1, 2 and 3, stretching your fingers just enough to reach the notes.
- Now play those three notes slowly and steadily, but this time play an extra C above the final note using your 5th finger.
That's it! You've played your first 4-note arpeggio. Told you it was easy.
Arpeggio Practice Time
Now it's time to use your new skill in some real music. Refer to the piece "Arpeggio Practice" mentioned above, which you can access by following this link.
This is an easy piece designed to help you get some arpeggio practice but in an actual piece of music, making it hopefully less of a technical exercise and more of a music-making experience. Most of it is quite simple, but bars 3 to 5 will require a little extra attention.
Here you're asked to play 5 different arpeggios in a row as follows:
- C arpeggio in root position (C-E-G-C)
- G arpeggio in 2nd inversion (D-G-B-D)
- C arpeggio in 1st inversion (E-G-C-E)
- F arpeggio in root position (F-A-C-F)
- G arpeggio in root position (G-B-D-G)
To make things easier on yourself, I recommend practicing the right hand on its own. Here's what the right hand looks like in isolation:
The sensible approach is to practice this right hand section over and over until it becomes a cinch. If you can do that, you'll find the rest of the piece quite easy. If you've never played arpeggios before or if you find them particularly perplexing, here's a tip:
Always use the same fingering!
As mentioned below, there is no so-called "correct" way to play arpeggios, although most books provide suggested fingerings. The trick is to do whatever feels right for you - but make sure you do the same thing every time. That way your finger muscles learn what they're supposed to do and the whole thing becomes automatic.
Bach's "Arpeggio" Prelude
How Basic Arpeggios are Formed
Root, 3rd, 5th, root
Root, lowered 3rd, 5th, root
Root, lowered 3rd, lowered 5th, root
Root, 3rd, raised 5th, root
Putting the Arpeggio Pieces Together
Bars 7 to 9 follow the same pattern as bars 3 to 5, but in reverse. Once you master that, the next step is to practice the right hand all the way through, practice the left hand all the way through, and then gradually add the left hand in two-bar sections.
Be sure to go slowly and stop if any part of the process is confusing or too difficult. Give yourself enough time to learn the various elements before putting them together. This is the easiest way to learn anything, and the best way to guarantee you don't end up feeling frustrated or defeated.
In the final four bars the two hands begin by playing arpeggios one after the other, and then come together for the penultimate bar, as in the picture below:
Arpeggio Fingering Guide
Here's the typical fingering system for playing arpeggios that begin on the white keys:
- Root position - 1, 2, 3, 5
- First inversion - 1, 2, 4, 5
- Second inversion - 1, 2, 3, 5
For arpeggios starting on the black keys, normal practice is to begin with finger 2 or 3, depending on which is most comfortable. For example, to play a major arpeggio starting on A flat, you might use the following fingering:
- Root position - 2, 1, 2, 4
- First inversion - 1, 2, 4, 1
- Second inversion - 2, 4, 1, 2
Remember that fingerings are only guides and are not cast in stone. The fingers you use to play will depend on the size of your hands and fingers and how comfortable you feel playing. You should use the fingering that works for you without worrying about whether or not it's "correct." If it feels right, then it must be right.
Practice Arpeggio Playing Skills
Practice makes perfect, and the only way to get your fingers used to playing arpeggios is to play them as often as you can. If you choose to practice the piece mentioned above, here are some tips on how to make those practice times a bit more interesting and productive:
- Start with the right hand, and then the left
- Next day, start with the left hand, followed by the right
- Change the rhythm by adding a swing style or jazz feel to it
- Record one hand and then play along with the other: next day, switch it around
- Play each bar with a different hand; then switch it around again
The more times you can practice the piece in a different way, the faster you'll learn it, and the less bored you'll be. By learning arpeggios in a piece of music you take the hassle out of it and almost learn them by accident. However you choose to do it ... good luck!