Transforming block chords into arpeggiations, or vice versa, is one of the most important improvisational tools at the keyboard. Composers, including Brahms and his contemporaries, owe the keyboard writing style of chords and arpeggiations very much to J. S. Bach. Arpeggiated figures appear in many varied forms. Bach usually wrote out his improvisations and arpeggiations, except for occasional instances in his infamous Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903. In this module, the student will discover the duality of block chords and arpeggiations, through the study of the opening of Brahms’s Violin Sonata in G major. All the excerpts in this chapter are placed at the end of the module, for viewing purposes.


  • Keyboard harmony
  • Score-reading techniques

Adequate keyboard harmony and score-reading techniques are required in order for the student to maximize the benefit and enjoyment in the following drills and improvisations.

Main Concepts

  • Transform block chords into arpeggiations and vice versa
  • Build awareness of adaptation and listening as a collaborative partner

In the midst of transforming block chords into arpeggiations and vice versa, the duo partners should be well aware of each other’s playing. Active listening and swift adaptation are two important ingredients of great chamber music making, especially in this stage of improvisation. The partners are strongly encouraged to swap their seats and roles.

Drills and Improvisations

  • Harmonic analysis using block chords
  • Cross rhythm

The student should scan through the harmonies in mm. 1-21 of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Sonata in G major op. 78 (Figure A), while playing block chords given by Brahms or obtained/reduced from arpeggiations. Cadences are avoided in various places. For example, mm. 8-9 could have been a V7-I cadence in D major. The 7th in the D major chord in m. 9 gives further expectation to proceed to G major, which was avoided by the interpolation of another dominant chord, the V6/5 of E major. The dominant-tonic resolution of mm. 20-21 is softened by the bass line descending in steps.

After the chord analysis is clear and the playing of solid chords is fluent, the student should then discover various cross-rhythmic features. It is quite fascinating to find multiple meters simultaneously in a single measure, such as m. 11. The violinist plays in 3 (like 3/2 time signature). The harmonic change in the piano part is in 2 (like 6/4 time signature). The hand position of the piano arpeggiation pattern is grouped in 4 (like 12/8 time signature).

When the unique rhythmic feature is fully apprehended, the student is then ready to collaborate the reduced piano part (in solid chords) in mm. 11-21, with another student who plays the melodic line. The melodic player can also deviate slightly from Brahms’s original, if desired, by adding decorative notes or ornaments. The harmonic player transforms solid chords into constant arpeggiations (with cross-rhythmic features) in mm. 1-9. Listening to the music from m. 21 onwards, the student should observe how Brahms makes use of arpeggios to give his music more forward momentum. Since m. 21 circulates back to the beginning melody in G major, another duo can start playing m. 1 when the previous duo finishes at m. 21.

Figure A

Goal for Next Class

  • Recreate the excerpt with consistent and clear harmonies
  • Each student should not get distracted by the cross rhythm

In a piano duet or duo piano setting, one person on the piano part and the other on the violin part can collaborate and recreate the sonata excerpt with consistent and clear harmonies, despite the distraction of a newly realized figuration of the piano part (solid or arpeggiation). The students should not shy away from the cross-rhythmic features. Most importantly, each player should not get distracted by the rhythmic tension, and they should accommodate each other by listening and adapting on the spot.

Other repertoire that can be further explored in this module includes:

Cello Sonata in E minor, op. 38

Cello Sonata in F major, op. 99

Violin Sonata in A major, op. 100

Violin Sonata in D minor, op. 108

Scherzo from “F-A-E” Violin Sonata