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The easy guide to music theory: how to program arpeggios in your DAW

Taken from the Italian word ‘arpeggiare’ which means ‘to play on a harp’, the most basic definition of an arpeggio is a quick run of notes. Arpeggios are also known as broken chords: if the notes of a chord are played separately, one after the other, as opposed to all at once, the resulting sequence can be classed as an arpeggio.

Originally a technique to enable monophonic instruments to play chords and add an element of rhythmic interest to their parts, arpeggios offer many different ways to bring flavour to your tracks. You can use twinkly synth arpeggios to add a disco-tastic flourish to a dance tune; underpin a 6'0s-style ballad by mirroring the chords with gentle piano or guitar arpeggios; or inject pace into a dubstep track by throwing in some intricately programmed fast arpeggiated synth riffs.

Many DAWs feature built-in arpeggiators that take the hard work out of producing arpeggios, with variable parameters such as note length, rate, range and direction. These devices are capable of quickly producing complex patterns based on notes held down on your MIDI keyboard.

Still, there’s a great deal of merit in knowing how to create your own arpeggios from scratch, as sometimes only something that you’ve programmed yourself will exactly fit the bill. 

We're going to walk you the theory of what an arpeggio is, demonstrating how to program a basic example by hand, followed by a couple of neat tricks that can help you tweak your programmed arpeggios to perfectly fit your track.