When you begin piano lessons, most of the time the goal is to progress as quickly and as well as possible.
You want to acquire the strongest bases, then go on playing the pieces that you like.
Let's be honest, most pianists are looking to play the songs they've heard and would like to remake, or just a legendary melody, playing just like the best pianists.
But the pianist has an ego and pride. To prove you are worthy, you may also go for difficult pieces, even the most difficult piano pieces ever written. These pieces don't necessarily fit your personal tastes but they are known to give a status, and a certain rank, to the one who plays them.
What's on your repertoire? Which is the hardest piano piece you've ever played — or want to play? Is it on the list of the top 10 most difficult piano pieces? Should it be?
The hardest piano pieces can be categorised in different ways in the world of the piano. We will go through classic pieces, followed by pop pieces, and finish with a look at Franz Liszt — arguably the world's greatest piano virtuoso and composer, and the composer responsible for so many of the most difficult piano pieces ever written.
Afterwards, you will inevitably go to your keyboard to learn one, or several — adding some of the top 10 most difficult piano pieces to your repertoire.
You will understand better how to become a piano virtuoso!
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Classical Music and its Virtuoso Pieces
There is often a tendency to say that the classical music pieces composed by the best pianists in the world are the hardest piano pieces to play. And, of course, some justify this reputation.
Fortunately, many classical pieces are also used for learning the piano.
Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven (1804-1808)
A legendary piece, composed by a genius musician. You have probably already heard these notes in the films, The Longest Day or Saturday Night Fever.
Composed in four movements (Allegro con Brio, Andante con moto, Scherzo and the Finale) and lasting approximately forty minutes, the fifth symphony of Beethoven is one of the Austrian's masterpieces.
For the anecdote, the music was composed during the Napoleonic wars, while Austria was invaded by France.
As for Beethoven, then in his thirties, he was increasingly affected by deafness.
A few years later, this symphony was designated as a reference work and is now one of the most popular, and difficult, pieces of classical music.
Piano Sonata No. 18 in D major (W.A Mozart)
There is no need to introduce Mozart, considered by many to be the greatest virtuoso in the history of the piano because of his precocity, and also because of the difficulty and complexity of his compositions. (Who doesn't recognise his famous enchanted flute opera of more than two hours long?)
Mozart's sonatas are among the most difficult piano pieces to play.
And the No. 18 offers an impressive technical panel with variations of rhythms, changes of fingering and speed.
You can confidently say you are a pianist with great capacities when you master the Mozart sonatas, and more precisely, the No. 18.
Are you aware of the long history of the piano?
The Bolero by Maurice Ravel (1928)
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful ballets of the twentieth century. A beautiful and catchy melody, it lasts about 15 minutes.
The melody repeats itself regularly during the piece, but variations in crescendo and orchestration give this singular work an original, even unique aspect.
The piece is so unique that, to this day, it is the most played ballet piece, featuring in the world's great operas since the 1930s, and even at events such as the 1998 World Cup and the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
The Toccata in D Minor by J.S Bach (1703-1707)
Everyone has already heard this music, the reference music written for the organs by Bach. Built in three episodes, it took four years to write. Controversies surrounded it at the beginning, the sulphurous composer, Ringck, and then Kelliner claiming its origin, but it is ultimately attributed to a young Bach.
There is a timeless aspect to this piece. It has been taken to the cinema in Fantasia, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, The Godfather or even Aviator and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The first notes entered history, and its melody is as beautiful as it is difficult with accelerations and piano adaptation.
The Hardest Piano Pieces in Pop Music
Pop songs are part of musical culture. Contrary to what one may think, commercial music can actually be very difficult and often serves as a basis for piano lessons as it requires many of the technical aptitudes essential for a pianist to master.
Diego, by Michel Berger (1983)
In France, Michel Berger is a reference in piano and musical creation. We owe him for a very large number of great hits as he wrote songs, not only for himself but also for other musicians.
If we had to come out with a song that represents the composer's genius, Diego is the perfect example.
A perfectly lapped melody, its chords are linked with fluidity. Technically, it is not a difficult song, but it certainly deserves its ranking in our Top 10 most difficult piano pieces for its management of rhythms and emotions. Despite being a complete piece for playing or learning to play the piano, it is insanely difficult to make it as beautiful as the original piece played by Michel Berger.
Find out how, through online piano lessons, Superprof tutors can help you master the depth of emotion the instrument can reflect.
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Life on Mars by David Bowie (1971)
Life on Mars took a new path with the death of David Bowie in 2016. One of his greatest successes, the piece is built on a simple piano melody and although it can be considered repetitive, this music (much like that of Michel Berger) is based on raising the crescendo intensity.
In the end, the piece takes on the persona of a cult melody, where the emotion is difficult to transcribe. The hardest piano piece played by David Bowie, you will need to devote considerable time to practising this difficult to play piece.
Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles (1960)
The important thing is to feel your music, really feel it and believe it.
~ Ray Charles ~
Pianists who are interested in the musical culture around their instrument know that jazz is a genre apart. It's not given to everybody to be able to play it. And Ray Charles is probably the greatest virtuoso in this field.
This is not just because he was blind — his music is complete, timeless and also very difficult to transcribe.
Georgia on my Mind is one of Ray Charles's most outstanding romantic pieces. The difficulty in this piece lies not in the rhythm, but in the melody itself.
The trick is to be well aware of the meaning and the words — with Ray Charles, the two are related. That is the difficulty.
Great and Difficult Movie Music
While they have taken on a new dimension in recent years, counting just as much as the movies in which they feature, movie scores must, of course, be on this list.
Technically of a very high level, movie scores require considerable pianistic capacities. As such, they are not suitable for early piano lessons.
People get very excited about playing the piano when listening to these songs, so the goal is to work on learning the piano and practising hard, so as to get to play these pieces as quickly as possible.
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Comptine d'un autre été (Yann Tiersen)
No one has forgotten this piano-accordion melody of one of the most popular French films of the early 2000s — Amélie.
This melody, composed by one of the best pianists in the world, Yann Tiersen, is very difficult for a particular reason — it is a piece for a left hand dominant person.
And since 75% of pianists are right hand dominant, this piece takes on a new dimension. It requires specific fingering training to be able to adapt to this piece. The difficulty of playing a piece for left hand dominant players and the speed of this piece make it doubly difficult.
Fly by Ludovico Einaudi (The Intouchables)
You may find yourself shedding a tear or two while listening to this sublime music. A relatively fast and very rhythmic melody, the piece requires considerable dexterity and a relatively soft feel. It is obviously not given to everyone.
Based on speed, arpeggios and chords, but with all in the emotion and sweetness of a very loud piece, this piece will remain a great moment of cinema music.
Music definitely plays a hand in the success of a movie — The Intouchables proves it.
Interstellar soundtrack (Hans Zimmer)
Revered as a master, Hans Zimmer is a worthy successor to John Williams — and this German is THE reference in movie music.
With the soundtrack of Interstellar, Zimmer gave it all he had — producing a piece of considerable length, with rhythmic and melodic accelerations. It is seen as an all-powerful and all-crescendo piece.
As with much of Hans Zimmer's music, the basis of the song is, technically, not very hard. It is the rhythmic changes and variations of sound that make this piece a role model for movie scores.
Who is Responsible for Writing the Hardest Piano Piece Ever?
Exactly what can be named as the hardest piano piece ever really is a relative judgement. What one person, or music critic, considers the hardest will likely be disputed by the next player. However, there is little doubt that Hungarian pianist and composer, Franz Liszt, stands out in front of the crowd of contenders.
Born on October 22, 1811 in Doborján, Franz Liszt is known worldwide as the greatest piano virtuoso of his time, if not ever. Taught to play the piano by his father from a very early age, Liszt composed his first pieces at the age of 8, and gave his first full public concert when he was only 9 years of age. So impressed were they with his playing, Hungarian magnates funded Liszt's training in Vienna for the following six years.
A pioneer in many aspects, Liszt was the first to give full solo recitals as a pianist and the inventor of the symphonic poem for orchestra. The pieces he composed showed a depth of originality and his insight in extending the harmonic language, as moving ahead of his time with his atonal music of the 20th Century.
Liszt was also instrumental in keeping alive the music of Beethoven, Bach, Berlioz and multiple others by transcribing and playing their works, thereby encouraging performances at a time when their music was waning in popularity.
Liszt was frequently attacked as being a 'superficial' composer of mere trifling music — but other composers were, at the same time, insanely jealous of his creativity, innovations and musical panache. In more recent times, however, he is applauded for revolutionalising the music of his time and foreseeing musical developments.
Liszt has flung his spear far into the future.
~ Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein ~
More than a Nod for one of Australia's Greatest Pianists — David Helfgott
Perhaps not known as well as some of the great European pianists, Australia boasts a large number of talented and world-class pianists and composers of piano music — Alyce Steele, Arthur Benjamin, Geoffrey Lancaster and Miriam Hyde to name a few — but perhaps none so prominent as David Helfgott, the pianist made famous by the movie, Shine.
The Academy award-winning movie, released in 1996, tells the story of Helfgott's early career and mental health battles which rendered him unable to play the instrument he loved for a number of years.
Helfgott's wife, Gillian, says she's been told her husband has Asperger's Syndrome "and probably a host of other neurological issues" but his love of music and desire to help the youth in his community are what keep him going. In fact, just this year, in 2021, Helfgott was recognised for his extended services to the performing arts by being awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM).
As with any prominent musician, however, Helfgott has his critics, many of whom shun him for his "shoddy musicianship and unconventional behaviour on stage" — some even going as far as to say he has merely ridden on the coattails of the success of Shine for the last 25 years. However, Helfgott has quite a unique response to his critics:
... no one has yet built a statue to honour a music critic.
It was the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3, considered by many as the hardest piano piece ever, that made David Helfgott a household name, both in Australia and around the globe.
The Rach 3, as Helfgott refers to it, is a piece of Titanic proportions, physically and psychologically demanding with expansive walls of notes, massive chords and textures demanding technical perfection.
In the movie, Helfgott is pushed by his professor to conquer the piece before it conquers him — the Rach 3 wins and Helfgott, played by Geoffrey Rush, is admitted to a psychiatric ward. While the latter is true, this did not happen because of the Rach 3 — that bit was a bit of dramatic licence.
In fact, the skill and technical virtuosity required by this particular piece of music is said to be one of Helfgott's strengths, along with other similar pieces, including Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies (which, by the way, another critic was reported as saying was played 'nearly' faultlessly the last time he performed it in Perth.)
Seven decades surrounded by music, Helfgott continues to perform, warming his audience's hearts with his trademark style — running on stage, waving madly and talking to himself almost continually as he plays. But, it is his unwavering passion, along with his profound technical skill, that keeps the audiences coming back for more. Plus — he simply loves to perform.
Build Your Repertoire in Style by Tackling Our Top 10 Most Difficult Piano Pieces
Sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano.
~ Frederic Chopin ~
At the end of the day, it's really up to you, but remember that learning the piano with challenging pieces helps you to understand your musical limits. More than anything, it is the opportunity to progress quickly by playing the challenging pieces.
Persevere in your piano lessons, source the piano sheet music and learn how to play the pieces you love. Let motivation be your greatest source of progress in order to learn to play the piano and become a real performer.
Right hand and left hand — choose a piano, play make your most beautiful treble clef and bass clef, find a piano teacher, continue practising, do what you need to become the piano player you dream to be. The solfeggio, chords and piano classics will then hold no secrets for you.
Life is like a piano; the white keys represent happiness and the black show sadness. But as you go through life’s journey, remember that the black keys also create music.
~ Author Unknown ~
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