10 hardest piano pieces and songs of all time

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

Whether you’re a virtuoso looking for your next piece to master, or just curious to see how difficult piano sheet music can get, gear up now for some intense piano repertoire. 

In opposition to the previous article on easy piano songs, this is a run-down of some of the most difficult pieces for solo piano that have ever been composed. Even the finest and most famous pianists of all time would have struggled. In fact, many of them did.

Ten works are explored on this list and every one demands full technical mastery of the keyboard. We’ve compiled as diverse a list as possible so that, if you’re bold enough to take them on, you should find at least one that works for you. 

Premium editions of each of these pieces can be found in the nkoda library - go ahead and try one out. Who knows? You might surprise yourself. 
 

Hardest piano pieces of all time
 

  1. Etude No. 2, ‘Sequenzen’ by Unsuk Chin
  2. Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ by Ludwig van Beethoven
  3. Ballade by Kaija Saariaho
  4. First Piano Sonata by Pierre Boulez
  5. A Hudson Cycle by Nico Muhly
  6. Three Movements from Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky
  7. Sonata No. 1 by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh
  8. Fantasy in C major, D. 760 by Franz Schubert
  9. Diary III by Xiaoyong Chen
  10. Gaspard de la nuit by Maurice Ravel

1. Etude No. 2, ‘Sequenzen’ by Unsuk Chin

 

A composer whose music has always been difficult to define, Unsuk Chin remains true to form in her six piano etudes. Traditionally, etudes are educational pieces designed to improve playing technique - a kind of piece-lesson. But a pianist confronting these works might need to find another simpler etude just to warm up.

Chin’s second etude was composed in 1999. It starts calmly, but that doesn’t last. The texture gradually thickens until the tempo accelerates and the notes cascade in both hands in the piano’s lower register. It’s packed with awkward fingerings and twisting rhythmic patterns that don’t let up until the piece is over.

Look out for some interesting phrases in the right hand. They involve rapid runs of notes up the keyboard that should be played with increasing softness - they’re really tough to play. But then again so is everything about this piece.  

2. Piano Sonata No. 29, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ by Ludwig van Beethoven

 

Beethoven was a great pianist as well as a great composer of piano works. His 32 sonatas for the instrument are central to his output, and the piano repertoire generally. Of them, No. 29 is considered by many to be the most difficult to play. The great virtuoso Franz Liszt gave the first documented performance of the work.

The Hammerklavier sonata is typical of Beethoven’s later works - adventurous, innovative and huge. It’s such a large piece in fact that it’s difficult to point exactly to what marks it out as particularly hard. But that might be just it - there is just so much material to learn and play. Ideas come and go so quickly in the piece that the player can never settle down. 

The sonata is in four movements and each is a unique challenge, but any pianist taking on this piece will notice that the interval of the third permeates them all. It’s a musical feature that binds the entire work, but playing some of Beethoven’s runs of successive thirds at pace is far from straightforward.

3. Ballade by Kaija Saariaho

In many of her compositions Kaija Saariaho creates surreal and mesmerising sound worlds. That’s exactly why her sheet music makes for good reading - it’s always interesting to see just how she constructs those textures. 

Ballade creates a soundscape like this, while turning the difficulty up to ten. One aspect of the piece that contributes to both of these features is its use of polyrhythms - notes arranged in apparently incompatible rhythmic groupings played at the same time. Think of triplets played against duplets. It’s hard to do both at the same time.

Now, imagine having to deal with that while playing through a constantly shifting texture - at speed. Not to mention the other musical material that continuously interrupts this flow. And that’s just one obstacle of too many to count that you have to find your way around.

4. First Piano Sonata by Pierre Boulez

It’s not just that this work is hard to play, it’s almost impossible to interpret. The motions themselves in Boulez’s First Piano Sonata are not the only difficulties facing the pianist. The player has to know exactly when to make them, and with exactly how much force. The challenge with Boulez is: can you realise his work precisely as he’s notated it? 

So it’s almost as much about being good at reading sheet music as it is about being a good pianist. Some of the rhythms outlined on Boulez’s staves are painful to decipher, and timing the rests between them is no less challenging - or important. And once you’ve worked out what you have to do, you have to actually play it.

As much as it might be hard to tell by listening to it, expression is also very important in Boulez’s music. The gestures themselves have to be articulated with care, their notes needing to be struck in a very particular way. 

5. A Hudson Cycle by Nico Muhly

 

A versatile musician who has tried his hand at most things, Nico Muhly unsurprisingly makes his way on to this list too. A Hudson Cycle was composed by Muhly in 2005. In its rolling textures you can hear the movement of the river the piece was named after and the emotions of the married couple it was written for.

The piece is a deceptively difficult one to play. Like in Ballade above, polyrhythms resurface here, and constant time signature changes make it hard to keep track of these phrases that continuously riff off one another. The resonant sound of the piece is only made possible by its big chords, which ask a lot of the right hand in particular.

Dynamics are a crucial aspect, which is shaped by expansion and reduction of volume and intensity. At least with the piece’s constant stream of notes it becomes slightly easier to manage these changes. 

6. Three Movements from Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky

 

If one work on this list had to be put forward as the most difficult piano piece, it might be this. Published in 1921 as Trois mouvements de PetrouchkaStravinsky’s work is regarded by many as perhaps the most technically advanced piece in the entire solo piano repertoire.

Pulling three movements from his 1911 ballet Petrushka, the Russian composer arranged the material for piano for one of the most celebrated pianists of all time, Arthur Rubinstein. Stravinsky conveniently admitted that his left hand wasn’t nimble enough for him to be able to play the arrangement himself.

As with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, each part represents a unique challenge. In the first movement, the sheer amount of musical activity between the hands is overwhelming. The second is constructed out of complex musical units that repeat and evolve. The third movement is just too much. It’s not for the faint-hearted. 

7. Sonata No. 1 by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh

Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is perhaps best known as a composer for her fusion of Western art music with the traditional forms of her native country. Sonata No. 1, however, engages wholly with avant-garde classical traditions.

The sonata was written in 1970, when Ali-Zadeh was studying piano and composition at the Baku Conservatory. Composed in three movements, the piece moves through sparse, resonant and frantic textures. Playing through each one requires the performer to utilise the widest range of piano-playing techniques. 

Looking at the sheet music, the final movement in particular makes for grim reading - seemingly endless sequences of notes spanning the width of the keyboard. All have to be played at a high tempo and changes in metre further complicate things. Also, recordings of this piece are rare, so any pianist who takes it on will be striking out bravely.

8. Fantasy in C major, D. 760 by Franz Schubert

 

Some of the most popular music in the piano repertoire was composed by Schubert. His 21 piano sonatas might be at the heart of his body of work, but his three (complete and surviving) fantasies capture the very best of his particular way of writing for the piano. The most difficult of them is the Fantasy in C major, D. 760.

Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu might be the go-to, but Schubert’s take on the form is tougher. It’s better known as the ‘Wanderer Fantasy’, because its material is derived from one of Schubert’s songs, ‘Der Wanderer’. It’s a formidable work, whose four movements, played without a break in between, make for twenty minutes of relentless performance.

Despite its demanding nature, the piece doesn’t fail to display Schubert’s famous gift for melody. In fact, striking the delicate balance between the fantasy’s lyricism and virtuosity might actually be the most difficult challenge for a player to overcome. That and the fugue-like finale.

9. Diary III by Xiaoyong Chen

When it comes to difficult piano music, Xiaoyong Chen learned from the best, having studied under the composer György Ligeti. Written in 2004, Diary III is reflective of Chen’s trademark creative style, in that the material develops from a simple idea or motif, treated more as pure sound rather than as notes on the page.

The work is made up of two contrasting movements: ‘Chant of the Stones’ and ‘Wind, Water and Shadows’. The first is especially typical of Chen’s style, and is harder to play than it might sound with its complex rhythms, frequent changes in time signature and precise pedalling. 

The second is exactly as difficult as it appears. From the opening semiquavers onwards, it’s a near-constant and rapid flow of notes. Throughout the movement both hands spiral, sometimes in different directions while playing conflicting rhythms. And thanks to many ‘pianississimo’ markings the player has to work through a lot of this as softly as possible.  

10. Gaspard de la nuit, M. 55 by Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel is another of the great composer-pianists. No surprise then that a lot of his finest and most acclaimed works are for piano solo. Gaspard de la nuit, a three-movement piece, is based on three poems by the nineteenth-century French poet Aloysius Bertrand.

As far as difficulty is concerned, the third movement - ‘Scarbo’ - outshines the previous two. Its structure is restless and hectic, and it contains some of the most acrobatic passages of piano music ever written. The poem it’s based on is about the antics of a goblin-like creature, which explains the nightmarish character of the music.

Massive chords, awkward rhythms, overlapping hands - it has everything that can strike fear into the heart of a pianist. Looking at the score, the piece appears unplayable. And it’s not as if the first two movements are easy either.

Your next steps for piano music


The best way to understand just how mind-boggling some of these works are is by seeing the sheet music for yourself on nkoda. Even if you have no desire to take them on, they’re still something to behold. As we said, it’s all just a click away. 

If you happen to be an advanced pianist looking for your next challenge - great. Hopefully these works have got you feeling inspired. Why not assemble them in an in-app playlist and see them off one by one?

Or, if it all sounds a bit much - which would be understandable - then perhaps some lighter reading would do you good. Check out nkoda’s top ten easiest piano pieces.

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