Spread Chords


This is the first part of a series on spread chords, kindly commissioned for the Online Academy by Orlando Murrin.

Introduction to the series

Spread (or rolled, ripped, broken or arpeggiated) chords are simply chords where we play one note after the other, rather than playing all the notes simultaneously. This sounds relatively straightforward, doesn’t it? However, there are questions and problems associated with spreading chords that might be summarised by a few bullet points:

  • Does the spread begin on or before the beat?
  • What is the function of the spread – is it rhythmic, harmonic or expressive?
  • Is it a fast or a slow spread?
  • Is the pedal involved? If so, how do I coordinate my hands with the pedal?
  • What is the direction of the spread? Bottom to top, top to bottom, or rolled up and then down again?
  • May I redistribute the hands to make it more comfortable? If so, how?
  • What do I do about a chord my hand won’t reach?
  • What is the difference between a spread and a split chord? How do I choose between these?
  • May I spread a chord if it is not marked with an arpeggiation sign?

The art of spreading chords in Baroque and Classical Period keyboard music relies on a little background understanding of the performance practices of the times. Some background knowledge can inform us as to the best way of realising this music on our modern instrument, and make us feel more confident that what we are doing is stylistic and acceptable to audiences and examiners. The more confident we feel in our performance decisions, the better able we are to communicate our vision of the music to our listeners. With this in mind, I have divided the subject into three separate articles dealing with the Baroque, Classical and Romantic / Modern periods. You will find a list of resources at the end of each article, in case you want to research further.

The articles in this series are living articles! Therefore I will be adding more examples from time to time, so if there is a question you have about a particular piece feel free to contact me here.

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