Piano World Home Page
I was just thinking today about perceived difficulty and actual difficulty of various pieces for the piano.

I'm sure we've all sat down at the piano and played something relatively straight-forward for some non-pianist, only to find that they are mightily impressed. And conversely I bet a lot of us have played something generally considered quite challenging, only to get a reaction from the person that the piece was not so tough.

1. So if I would ask for some pieces which have a particularly large discrepancy between perceived difficulty and actual difficulty, which ones come to mind?

Either solo or concerto is fine for the list. Could be either "sounds hard, but is actually not that hard" or "sounds fairly simple but is actually quite tough".

2. Second level of this question would be whether there are certain demographic groups who might tend (on average with a large sample) to have a difficulty perception skewed toward or against certain types of classical music (baroque vs romantic, for example) or certain composers. It's difficult to research this conclusively, but I'd be interested to hear people's hypotheses, speculations and conjectures.

I have some ideas in mind for both 1 and 2, but thought I'd leave these questions neutral and get a few comments here before adding my .02.

***Note for nitpickers! Before calling this thread out for the sweeping generalization fallacy, please bear in mind that it is obvious that generalizing the music tastes of large groups is very difficult; however I invite people to try anyway. Obviously there are always exceptions, and I doubt anybody actually believes all people with demographic characteristic x consider music category y more complex/challenging/enjoyable. I'm simply asking for guesses as to the locations of probability distributions for different groups.***
As for question 1, when I have played Bach Prelude in B flat major (from WTC book I) for some non-pianist friends, they have been very impressed and thought it must be really hard. But in reality, it is quite easy.

And then of course whenever I play anything, hard or easy, my little brother always scoffs and says he could do it easily :P
So can he?
haha, not him! I taught him lessons for like 2 months and then he gave up.
Grieg Concerto...1st movement. I looked at the cadenza and the runs, was terrified, and I played them...I sightread a lot of it XD
Bach c sharp minor from book I. So difficult, like all Bach, of course doesn't sound hard because it's a slower one. But the 5 voices are not easy!

And then everybody hears rach 2 and gives it a title of insane difficulty. I'll just say, it easier than any Bach..
This thread reminds me of when I played the Brahms D minor concerto. It was my first concerto, my teacher said to me, I will not teach you the Grieg or Schumann I am sick of them. Then he said, you should play Brahms First. It is not difficult at all, except for a horrendous octave passage.
I think a lot of Bach fugues would fall into the "harder than they appear" category due to the the immense difficulty of voicing the (2)3-5 parts correctly.

Fugue 8 from WTC 1 comes to mind, its extreme slowness makes it seem even easier (it's probably one of the most difficult and frustrating pieces I have ever played, though I'm not really a Bach person).

In general I think fast pieces always seem harder and slow pieces easier to the untrained ear. Beyond that, I'm not sure I can think of a more specific generalization, though the Bach fugues seems right to me.
Originally Posted by Quickster94

In general I think fast pieces always seem harder and slow pieces easier to the untrained ear. .


Yep, I think you've hit the nail right on the head. For example, I used to think that the tarantella by Pieczonka sounded really hard, though my teacher told me it wasn't as hard as it sounds. Then when I saw the actual score I realized that, though it isn't the easiest piece ever, it really isn't that horribly difficult either.

PS, I'll admit that I've never learned a 5 part fugue, but Bach has never seemed very hard to play...
Originally Posted by WinsomeAllegretto
Originally Posted by Quickster94

In general I think fast pieces always seem harder and slow pieces easier to the untrained ear. .


Yep, I think you've hit the nail right on the head. For example, I used to think that the tarantella by Pieczonka sounded really hard, though my teacher told me it wasn't as hard as it sounds. Then when I saw the actual score I realized that, though it isn't the easiest piece ever, it really isn't that horribly difficult either.

PS, I'll admit that I've never learned a 5 part fugue, but Bach has never seemed very hard to me...

I think another nail in the coffin for Bach difficulty is the simple fact they were not written as piano pieces, the piano only came into existence towards the end of Bach's life.
Chopin 10/2. I've told a number of non-pianists that this is one of the hardest etudes - without explaining why - and they think it sounds easy compared to - say - the Revolutionary.
Sounds hard but isn't quite as difficult as people make it out to be: Most of Alkan's music.

Sounds easy but is actually hard: Middle movements of Beethoven's Sonata in B Flat Major Op. 22.

I'm learning Ravel's Concerto in G (all 3 movements), and I don't know how much harder or easier it is than it sounds. This one may be even. I wonder what its difficulty is compared to, oh I don't know, maybe Schumann's, Rachmaninoff's 2nd, or Tchaikovsky's 1st?
Originally Posted by jdhampton924
Originally Posted by WinsomeAllegretto
Originally Posted by Quickster94

In general I think fast pieces always seem harder and slow pieces easier to the untrained ear. .


Yep, I think you've hit the nail right on the head. For example, I used to think that the tarantella by Pieczonka sounded really hard, though my teacher told me it wasn't as hard as it sounds. Then when I saw the actual score I realized that, though it isn't the easiest piece ever, it really isn't that horribly difficult either.

PS, I'll admit that I've never learned a 5 part fugue, but Bach has never seemed very hard to me...

I think another nail in the coffin for Bach difficulty is the simple fact they were not written as piano pieces, the piano only came into existence towards the end of Bach's life.



What I'm saying is that Bach is NOT as hard as it seems. I mean it seems like it would be hard to play all the different lines, but once you work out a method of practicing it, it just takes time. It doesn't have a lot of big leaps or other difficult technical things, and the melody is mostly stepwise or skips close together. The only hard thing is bringing out whichever line you want to bring out.
To me, Bach sounds simple. Of course, I realize that a five-part fugue is far from easy, but to the untrained ear, his works sound simple. Since there is not much texture, people automatically assume it's easier, when in reality, it just brings out your flaws when playing.

Poulenc's Concerto for piano and orchestra is a lot more difficult than you'd think. (I'm not talking about the more well-known one for two pianos, but the lesser-known one.) The first few months I worked on it, I didn't find it particularly difficult. Sure, there were some technical difficulties, but it wasn't that bad. But now that I've known it for about a year now, I've started realizing that there are many hidden melodies that Poulenc throws in. The accompaniment has the melody most of the time, so I thought, but then I found seemingly random notes that added to the melody. It was like he took the melody, put it threw a paper shredder, scattered it amongst the piano solo, and put in a fake melody for the orchestra to throw you off. A lot more difficult.
I've had the experience of getting "wow that's amazing" from a Bach Invention in only 2 parts. The untrained ear may be able to hear the 2 lines, realise the "impossibility" of the player's brain being able to follow both at once, and delight in the complexity. I've been surprised a few times by this positive reaction (I had assumed that listener wouldn't especially like this music). It was no 8 and 13 btw.

A fugue in 4 voices on the other hand is perhaps too complex for a new listener, so they miss the "wow" and it just sounds like a generally busy piece.
Kreisler's Easy Piece is not as hard as it sounds.
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Kreisler's Easy Piece is not as hard as it sounds.


um well just let me say something YEAH it is its a harder song then you think.
Scriabin's 42 no.5 comes across as less difficult than it really is. I think also the etude op.65 no.1? If you just listen, you don't realize how impossible it is, with all of those ninths flying everywhere.

With Liszt, the opposite is true, where the "hard" parts are easier than what they sound like. Like how in Chasse-Neige, once the theme comes back Fortissimo after the chromatic section in alternating octaves, it's actually easier than before.
Any Mozart sonata.
Fantasie Impromptu is so much easier than it sounds.
Originally Posted by Ferdinand
Any Mozart sonata.

OMGOSH YES! They're all impossible to play.
I'd say La Campanella has a fairly large discrepancy between how difficult it's perceived to be and how hard it actually is. It is still definitely a difficult piece... but so many people see it as being so much more difficult than it really is. A lot of the techniques fall into place comfortably if you're at the level of being able to attempt it. The runs are mostly simple chromatics, the jumps just take a bit of dedicated practice, and then you've got them, and the ending sounds a lot more difficult than it really is.
Originally Posted by Butters109
I'd say La Campanella has a fairly large discrepancy between how difficult it's perceived to be and how hard it actually is. It is still definitely a difficult piece... but so many people see it as being so much more difficult than it really is. A lot of the techniques fall into place comfortably if you're at the level of being able to attempt it. The runs are mostly simple chromatics, the jumps just take a bit of dedicated practice, and then you've got them, and the ending sounds a lot more difficult than it really is.

Just listened and watched again, and it looks and sounds very difficult to me, even when player looks relaxed like this one. The end seems crazy hard. My compliments to you for being able to play this smile
That's a different version then is usually played, and I believe it is a bit harder than the standard one.
Originally Posted by jdhampton924
This thread reminds me of when I played the Brahms D minor concerto. It was my first concerto, my teacher said to me, I will not teach you the Grieg or Schumann I am sick of them. Then he said, you should play Brahms First. It is not difficult at all, except for a horrendous octave passage.

Interesting. I recall that after Ruth Laredo recorded all (or most?) of Rachmaninov's piano music, she said in an interview that when she tackled the Brahms D minor for the first time, she found it relatively easy after plowing through Rachmaninov's heavily contrapuntal piano writing.

Otherwise, as much as I love the Grieg and Schumann concertos, IMO they have nowhere near the musical depths of the Brahms. The big octave salvo in the Brahms is painfully exposed (like the piano entrance in Beethoven's 3rd?), but I would think not more difficult than what one casually encounters in Tchaikovsky's 1st, or the piano entrance of the Liszt Eb for that matter.



Originally Posted by Kuanpiano
Originally Posted by Ferdinand
Any Mozart sonata.

OMGOSH YES! They're all impossible to play.

Even those damned slow movements are hard. They're just so booby trapped at every juncture. tiki

And no, we're not talking 'notes' (anybody can play them), we're talking about musical decisions. You sit there staring at the score dumbfounded, wondering how the heck to come to terms with it. Truly music that only young prodigies can easily play. Good on them!

Originally Posted by Butters109
That's a different version then is usually played, and I believe it is a bit harder than the standard one.

The pianist replies to a youtube comment "the Busoni version is more economical technically, and certainly not more difficult." But maybe he can't tell laugh Both versions are way beyond me at this point.

I think I should go and do a bit of a survey with my own rep to see which is generally percieved as more difficult, then I'll know what to pull out when I want to impress wink I think it's difficult to tell how "average person" will judge.

It's a very important question in teaching kids too; you want to give them the opportunity to really impress their friends. It's a question dear to their hearts (yeah and mine hehe).
Yes that opening passage of the Liszt Concerto. I think it took me five play through of that darn jumps to finally play all the right notes. Of course the cadenza was a mess. Then again that's at Argerich tempo. Wouldn't it be quite easy at Richter tempo or Michelangeli tempo.

I believe Laredo. My experiences with Godowsky make everything else appear easy. Don't get started on the size of the chords and jumps in his Sonata. I'd rather Rachmaninoff any day in comparison.

The Ravel Gmajor I think is underestimated for it's difficulty. Sure technically it's not too bad, but it's like other simple pieces in that it derives it's difficulty from trying to do something other than looks cool.
Originally Posted by Canonie
Originally Posted by Butters109
That's a different version then is usually played, and I believe it is a bit harder than the standard one.

The pianist replies to a youtube comment "the Busoni version is more economical technically, and certainly not more difficult." But maybe he can't tell laugh Both versions are way beyond me at this point.

I think I should go and do a bit of a survey with my own rep to see which is generally percieved as more difficult, then I'll know what to pull out when I want to impress wink I think it's difficult to tell how "average person" will judge.

It's a very important question in teaching kids too; you want to give them the opportunity to really impress their friends. It's a question dear to their hearts (yeah and mine hehe).


I can see where he might say that it is more economical technically, as in it takes out a few of the jumps and splits some of the difficulties that Liszt confines to just the right hand to both left and right hands... but these parts aren't nearly as difficult as they sound if you're at the level to attempt the piece. Busoni adds a lot of other difficulties I think that overall make his version more difficult.
Originally Posted by MikeN

The Ravel Gmajor I think is underestimated for it's difficulty. Sure technically it's not too bad, but it's like other simple pieces in that it derives it's difficulty from trying to do something other than looks cool.

Underestimated? Who said that? laugh

I thought in a sense it is considered on a similar level with Ravel's major solo works. My piano teacher at uni mentioned that once.

And of course you do know the frightening tale for us mortals: the slow movement is supposedly a b*tch to memorize, but Argerich reportedly memorized it after one read-through. I guess she was not aware it was supposed to be difficult.
Yea, a small feat for the same woman who Memorized Gaspard in 3 days. Yet I'm always encouraged when I hear how sloppily she plays it at times. Only Argerich could get away with some of the performances she did in the 70s and 80s.

Although none on this particular form has the nerve, I've heard the Ravel simply tossed off as easy.
I personally think the difficulty of Bach pieces on the piano is overstated by most non-pianists. And by pianists who have good hand-eye coordination but lack the musical inclination/sense to play music which requires expression/interpretation (beyond the relatively minimal amount required for Bach piano, that is).
In my experience, a lot of Brahms sounds much simpler than it is to play.
Originally Posted by Phlebas
Chopin 10/2. I've told a number of non-pianists that this is one of the hardest etudes - without explaining why - and they think it sounds easy compared to - say - the Revolutionary.


When I first started looking at the etudes, this was the only one I could sight read from beginning to end, so I put it on the back-burner as something I could do anytime. Later on, a thread here at PW discussing it's difficulty had me pulling it out again and I had to admit that once I started increasing the speed, it started to become painful to play. I still can't play it to speed.
The general idea I am getting from this thread is frankly difficulty is relative like anything else. What is difficult for some is easy for others, and vice versa.

I find Bach difficult because it was not designed for a piano, other people do not have that issue. I do not find the voicing the most difficult part, but that is due to how I learn Bach pieces.

Originally Posted by Kuanpiano
Scriabin's 42 no.5 comes across as less difficult than it really is. I think also the etude op.65 no.1? If you just listen, you don't realize how impossible it is, with all of those ninths flying everywhere.



Speaking of Scriabin, I've always thought the op. 8, no. 12 etude was easier than its reputation seems to be (which isn't to say it is easy). Probably the Horowitz effect...

I agree with those who are saying that Brahms generally is more difficult to learn and play than it sounds.
Originally Posted by cast12
Fantasie Impromptu is so much easier than it sounds.

1+

Chopin Nocturne 62/2 -much harder than it sounds
ABRSM Grade 5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taOZj_3sRsM
Sounds very busy and harder?
Originally Posted by wr
Originally Posted by Kuanpiano
Scriabin's 42 no.5 comes across as less difficult than it really is. I think also the etude op.65 no.1? If you just listen, you don't realize how impossible it is, with all of those ninths flying everywhere.



Speaking of Scriabin, I've always thought the op. 8, no. 12 etude was easier than its reputation seems to be (which isn't to say it is easy). Probably the Horowitz effect...

I agree with those who are saying that Brahms generally is more difficult to learn and play than it sounds.


If you're bad with octaves, then it's not too bad. Interestingly enough, I had more trouble with Rach 23-5 than I am now with Scriabin 8-12
Yep, the D# minor etude is one of the easier etudes he wrote, because the challenge of the left hand stops towards the end of the piece (when the A section comes back), and the hardest notes can be redistributed to the right hand. It doesn't really have the challenge of monster stretches and impossible arpeggios (you can play the left hand staccato if you want), the insane rhythmic challenges he's notorious for, or ridiculous voicings.
Originally Posted by Kuanpiano
Yep, the D# minor etude is one of the easier etudes he wrote, because the challenge of the left hand stops towards the end of the piece (when the A section comes back), and the hardest notes can be redistributed to the right hand. It doesn't really have the challenge of monster stretches and impossible arpeggios (you can play the left hand staccato if you want), the insane rhythmic challenges he's notorious for, or ridiculous voicings.


It's still very difficult. Especially to play at higher speeds.
© Piano World Piano & Digital Piano Forums