Chords? Arpeggios? Harmony? What’s The Deal?

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Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter The Internet

You’re been browsing through the internet on a day not unlike any other – and say you did a Google search for “free guitar lessons” or “chord progressions” or something of the sort. You drift from one site to another somewhat absentmindedly and then you see it. Clear as day. The inconsistencies between one site and another in their attempts to explain the mysteries of music away, though somehow managing to garner more questions than answers.

When Is A Chord Not A Chord?

Every so often you can stumble across some web site that says a chord is two or more tones, but heed my bold warning. That is just plain incorrect. I personally like to use that as the default example as to making the potential risks of learning on the internet known.

Another example. Have you ever been thumbing through one of those books that’s thick enough to give someone a concussion with a good enough thwack to the back of the head that reads “chord dictionary” on the front? Have you ever thought about what would happen if you took a given shape and played all the documented tones one at a time? Your chord dictionary transforms into an arpeggio dictionary of course.

Actually the title “chord dictionary” is a bit of a misnomer since something can’t be a chord without being played. It also can’t be an arpeggio. The only difference being how they are played. When you’re looking at a bunch of pictures in a book it’s not really being played and therefore neither a chord nor an arpeggio. A bit heavy on the semantics, sure, but it’s a stable perspective.

So what is a chord? A chord is the instance when at least three different tones are played at the same exact time. That is it. Everything else is peripheral to that point.

Branching off that point into a guitar specific point, when a guitarist is strumming a guitar technically he’s not playing chords because the tones are not being sounded at the exact same time. Granted how fast he strums will certainly make it harder for the listener to discern the time between each tone being sounded nevertheless that is a limitation to the pick.

What About An Arpeggio?

I’ve pretty much already answered what an arpeggio is so this section should be a bit less long-winded. An arpeggio is simply just the tones of a given harmony played one at a time. Boom. Done.

The difference, to be redundant, all resides in how the harmony is played. If you play the tones and they sustain after the next has been sounded then you could say you have an arpeggiated chord, sure.


Harmony is the umbrella that looms overhead and keeps the confusion from raining down and congesting the information with clutter and inconsistency. Though it seems the umbrella has gotten a few holes in it over the year because I don’t see any harmony dictionaries and our web site stats have yet to reveal anyone Google searching for “harmony progressions” so something’s amiss.

Though the word harmony does lend itself to a one-size-fits-all use in a context like this. Chords and arpeggios are both types of harmony applied in different ways. At the least in these contexts you should be safe from any would-be misconception wrought by non-interchangeable words and their tendency to be used interchageably.

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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