The Meaning of Stacked, Rolled, and Broken Music Chords

Similar Notes, Different Execution

Mixed Race mother helping son play guitar
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Music chords are harmonic in nature and the basis for nearly every piece of Western music written, from classical and romantic music composition, through to today's popular music.  Music chords are two or more pitched notes that are played simultaneously. A very common type of chord in Western classical music is the triad, which consists of three notes. To demonstrate stacked, rolled and broken music chords, the triad offers an example that is simple to understand.

Triads have three main notes: the root note, a third above the root (also called the "third") and a fifth above the root notes (also called a fifth). So a C-major tried would include a C, an E, and a G, whereas an A-major tried would include an A (the root), a C-sharp (the third), and an E (the fifth). In major and minor triads the fifth must always be perfect. If it is not a perfect fifth, the triad is changed to either an augmented or diminished triad.

Stacked Chords

As its name implies, a stacked chord means that you play all three notes of the chord at the same time. For a C-major chord, this means that the C, E and G notes would be written stacked on top of each other, resembling a snowman. The triad does not necessarily have to appear in the order of C on bottom and G on top. It can also be inverted so that the E or G is on top. In music, this is called an "inversion." Whether the chord is inverted or not, as long as the notes are written in a stacked matter, they are still played at the same time.

Rolled Chords

A rolled chord might contain the same notes as a stacked chord, but they are notated and played differently. The rolled chord is also written with the notes of the chord stacked upon one another. But next to the chord is a symbol that resembles a verticle squiggly line. The squiggly line indicates that the chord is rolled and not stacked.

When a chord is rolled, the musician plays the chord in a smooth ripple, creating a harp-like effect. Rolled chords might sound similar to a guitar strum and can be used to create a soothing sound or can be used at a loud dynamic to create an aggressive sound. The result depends on how quickly or slowly the chord is rolled and with which velocity. Using the example of a C-major chord where the chord is written E-G-C, the E would be played first, "rolled" into the G and followed by the C.

Broken Chords 

Broken chords contain the same notes as stacked and rolled chords but are notated and executed differently. Another name for a broken chord is an arpeggio. A broken chord is written as separate notes on the staff. Sometimes, it may not look like a broken chord at all. But to a musician that can easily identify chord types, it will be immediately apparent that the separated notes are really part of one chord family. For a broken chord in C-major, the C, E, and G will be written separately (not stacked) but occur sequentially - one immediately after the other. Similar to the rolled and stacked chords, the broken chord does not necessarily have to appear in a certain order. It can appear in its root position or in any inversion.