30 of the Hardest Piano Pieces to Play
The piano is a difficult instrument to play and contributes to some of the most elegant music we’ve ever heard. While most piano pieces are mellow and easy to play, several piano compositions are extremely difficult to perform.
The piano has been around for three centuries, and it has brought joy to people all over the world. Such beautiful music as The Entertainer, Clair de Lune, and River Flows In You would never have been heard if not for this instrument.
Despite its ability to produce such magical tunes, the piano is also responsible for some of the most difficult pieces to play not just on the piano but in music. Today we take a look at the 30 hardest piano pieces to play.
1. Piano Sonata No.32; Op.111 in C Minor – Beethoven
Piano Sonata No.32; Op.111 in C Minor by Beethoven was composed in 1821. The dark and dissonant nature of the sonata has captivated musicians for over two hundred years, and it remains a staple of not just piano repertoire but also classical music in general.
Despite its popularity, there seems to be very little information on the specific tuning method Beethoven used when composing this piece.
Playing this piece on the piano has always been a challenge for pianists, but it seems that the tuning method makes this even more difficult.
2. Vers la Flamme – Scriabin
Vers la Flamme by Scriabin was composed in 1914, a year before his death and it is a masterpiece that deserves to be much better known.
The piece, as well as being regarded as one of the finest examples of Russian Symbolist music, can also now be said to have been prophetic in its evocation of apocalyptic themes from the outset.
This piano piece is really hard to play and only the greatest pianists have ventured to master it entirely. With an extremely dark theme, it represents the pinnacle of piano composition.
3. Sonata No.18 in D Major, K.578 – Mozart
The beautiful Sonata No.18 in D Major, K.578 by Mozart was composed in 1789. This piano masterpiece is one of Mozart’s most frequently performed sonatas. It is highly regarded as one of Mozart’s most difficult sonatas and is often performed by advanced pianists.
His style of composition is so playful and natural, that one would never suspect the difficulties which lie beneath. Although just hearing all the notes in such fluent motion, one can expect that this is no easy task to perform perfectly.
4. Piano Concerto – Clara Schumann
The Piano Concerto by Clara Schumann was composed in 1835 and premiered in Leipzig.
This beautiful piece is a truly remarkable work in its own right, but it is also of special interest to us today because Clara Schumann was one of the first female composers ever to have composed a symphony that has survived until our day and is still being performed.
It is impossible not to feel very proud when you hear this wonderful work. The sheer difficulty of this particular solidifies this one as one of the most challenging to ever been written for its instrument.
5. Klavierstücke 1-X – Stockhausen
Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke 1-X was composed in 1952 and is truly a morbid piece of music, performed by the pianist himself. It was composed at a time when Stockhausen explored his thoughts and emotions regarding death.
The dark nature of the work and the dissonant harmonies shown in it can’t be described as anything other than disturbing. As a contrast to his later works, this piece is for sure one of his most peculiar pieces and also one of his most difficult to play.
6. Piano Concerto No.6 – Kapustin
The Piano Concerto No.6 by Kapustin was composed in 1993 and features a slow and fast movement. It is dedicated to the composer’s son Andrey (born in 1982) and is one of Kapustin’s most popular pieces.
The Piano Concerto No.6 is one of Kapustin’s works that took less time to receive popularity amongst students, pianists, and listeners alike. Today, this piano composition is one of the hardest for any pianist to master and perform flawlessly.
7. Sonata No.1 – Bortkiewicz
Bortkiewicz is another virtuoso on this list, with his amazing composition Sonata No.1. This piece was composed in 1927 and is simply a driving force from beginning to end.
Even though this piece is quite popular among pianists, audience response has been mixed at best. Granted it can be hard to listen to such difficult piano pieces, this one is truly a staple of what it means to master this instrument.
Only very gifted piano players can play the entire piece without making any mistakes.
8. Opus Clavicembalisticum – Sorabji
Opus Clavicembalisticum by Sorabji was composed in 1930 and was regarded as the longest piano composition at that time. The entire composition is around 4 hours in total so you could only imagine the work that goes into this one.
This piece is extremely complicated in its structure. The dark melodies throughout are truly magnificent. This piece is extremely difficult to pull off. Sorabji’s music would eventually attract many students. There are only 2 copies of the sheet music for this masterpiece.
9. Sonata No.2 “Concord” – Ives
Another work of art is Sonata No.2 “Concord” by Ives. It was completed in 1915 with a few years of work put into it. A truly dark but satisfying piece, it is a build-up of musical tension that is eventually released in the piece.
The difficulty of this piece is something that rarely comes across in the music and I feel as if one who is familiar with the piano and has a sense for it can appreciate this piece quite well. Only top-tier pianists can truly do this justice.
At the very least, I highly recommend you listen to the piece.
10. Piano Sonata No.11 (including ‘Rondo alla Turca’) – Mozart
Not quite a shocker that Mozart makes an appearance again on this list. His composition Piano Sonata No.11 (including ‘Rondo alla Turca’) was composed in 1784 and is one of Mozart’s most well-known piano sonatas.
Famous for its galloping motif, the music is often used in popular culture. It is also one of the few pieces ever to use the tonic, dominant, and subdominant notes. As well as being incredibly catchy, it also makes for an interesting technical study for pianists.
To play this piece effectively, you need to be able to play in chord patterns, do trill exercises and reach high for the notes as it presents a real challenge to master.
11. Gaspard de la Nuit – Ravel
Gaspard de la Nuit was composed in 1908 by the great Ravel. This piano piece is composed of 3 poems by Aloysius Bertrand, each one accompanied by preludes written by Ravel.
Just looking at the visual display in the video you can see the sheer difficulty this piece presents. The stream of notes rarely stops, and what makes it even more difficult is that some notes are embellished, meaning that these notes have to be rolled.
The preludes also present difficulties for the pianist as they use arpeggios in difficult rhythmical patterns. A truly daunting task to master.
12. Étude Op. 10 No. 4 – Chopin
One of my personal favorites on this list is Étude Op. 10 No. 4 by Chopin. It was composed in 1830 and is simply a breathtaking piano piece. The sheer speed one needs to perform it is mind-boggling.
There have been a few claims that it may be among the most difficult Chopin pieces to perform, even more difficult than some of his other famous works like Etude Op. 25 No. 11 or Minute Waltz. Overall, a truly worthy one for this list with its difficulty level being off the charts.
13. Sonata No.4 – Ornstein
Sonata No.4 was composed by Leo Ornstein in 1918. At the time, Ornstein was considered one of the most radical composers in the world; he had once destroyed all of his earlier compositions because they were “too conventional”. Just imagine the lengths of his mind and then imagine how it might’ve sounded to the world upon his late-romantic sonata’s debut.
This 4 movement piano piece is truly a masterpiece of 20th-century music. Ornstein says that this sonata is a “symphonic suite” and should be performed as one continuous piece.
14. Etudes-Tableaux – Rachmaninoff
Etudes-Tableaux by Rachmaninoff was composed in 1916 and is a staple of what a truly difficult piano piece looks like. It is a series of eight very hard etudes, one in each major and minor key. A difficult piece to follow, let alone play, that even master pianists find the piece challenging.
A worthy one on this list without a doubt. Since their publication, the etudes have been a staple in piano repertoire and are famous for being technically difficult. Because of this, they are a staple test-piece in piano competitions across the world.
15. Transcendental Etudes – Liszt
Making his debut on this list is the ever-amazing Franz Liszt with his Transcendental Etudes. Transcendental Etudes are a collection of twelve musical compositions composed in 1852 with a high-difficulty level of technique.
Franz Liszt desired to push the boundaries of piano technique, but not with overly complex or extremely fast pieces like some virtuoso works that came before him.
The Transcendental Etudes are composed so that each one requires mastery over a certain technical ability such as scales, chords, repeated notes, etc.
16. Piano Concerto – Babbitt
Milton Babbitt’s Piano Concerto was composed in 1987. The concerto is in one continuous movement lasting about 25 minutes, although there are indications of sections within the score, most notably a subito piano around the 12/13 minute mark.
This dark theme is brought back many times throughout the remainder of the work. The concerto is for solo piano, accompanied by a large orchestra. Only pianists of exceptional stature are considered for the performance of this piece.
17. Trois mouvements de Petrouchka – Stravinsky
Another remarkable piano piece is Stravinsky’s Trois mouvements de Petrouchka which was composed in the first half of the 20th century.
The third movement is a kind of a musical joke – It has a rather absurd name Les cinq doigts (Five Fingers). As you may have guessed already, here we have five variations performed by each of the five fingers of one hand. According to Stravinsky, this third movement was written for his daughter whom he wanted to teach piano simple tunes with no difficult passages.
Although, given the entire structure, this piano piece is very difficult and is very often performed by virtuosos.
18. Violin Sonata – Franck
Violin Sonata by César Franck is an incredibly hard piano piece that was composed in 1886. This masterful display of piano writing is known for its technical difficulty and has only recently become popular for advanced piano students.
This Sonata, considered to be one of the hardest pieces in the entire classical repertoire, requires an incredible amount of work by both musician and listener alike.
With its mellow theme, beautiful melodies, and moody harmonies, Franck’s Violin Sonata is a crown jewel of the piano repertoire.
19. Etudes Op.33 – Szymanowski
Etudes Op.33 was composed in 1915 by Karol Szymanowski. A hard piano composition to play, it is part of the intermediate repertoire and serves as a perfect piece to demonstrate how playing styles were changing during this period.
The themes within this composition are dreamy and very melancholic: the first theme is a plain octave on the basses, which transforms itself into a more lyrical second melody. Pianists of today might not be accustomed to playing this way, but the romantic style is still very much alive.
20. Sonata No.4 – Feinberg
Samuil Feinberg is behind the magnificent Sonata No.4 which was composed in 1918. It is a masterfully crafted work with a profound technical difficulty which makes it an unforgettable experience for every performer and listener alike.
The last movement especially stands out with its unprecedented chordal clusters – the only instance in the history of music where one single instrument plays chords containing four consecutive semitones.
With its confusing structure and sound, it can be argued that this Sonata is not only the most difficult but the most enigmatic and strange piano piece in existence.
21. Étude for Piano No. 13 – Ligeti
Étude for Piano No. 13 by György Ligeti was composed in 1989. The piece consists of five movements that have become famous for their difficulty and is considered one of the most difficult solo piano pieces ever written.
The playful yet daunting piece is widely considered to be unplayable by many pianists. This has led to numerous attempts at the piece, some of which are highly praised while others are heavily criticized.
22. Piano Concerto No.1 – Ginastera
Piano Concerto No.1 by the great Alberto Ginastera was composed in 1961 and is one of the highlights in the piano concerto repertoire. Though not as popular as Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev, this Argentine composer has a very specific sound that makes his music instantly recognizable.
The piece has a very dark theme attached to it which makes this an even more scary composition to play. Only exceptional pianists can dabble with this piece and really do it justice.
23. Concerto for Solo Piano Op. 39 – Charles-Valentin Alkan
Concerto for Solo Piano Op. 39 by Charles-Valentin Alkan was composed in 1857. This one is actually one of the most romantic pieces I’ve ever heard out of the Romantic period. It begins with an ominous cadence and slowly unfolds into a very Romantic piece that still stands tributed to Classical music which was rather bold at its time.
This piece is also really hard to play, some parts are some of the hardest any pianist can attempt. It has a very bright theme with a playful style of playing that just sounds right.
24. Goldberg Variations – Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach is one that we all know, his Goldberg Variations piece was composed in 1741 and is the most well-known piece that we are all familiar with.
These days, Bach’s music is more of a musical mark of quality than anything else, but during his lifetime he was just a very accomplished composer who wrote a lot of religious pieces, cantatas, and “secular” music i.e. not religious music.
The strange thing is though that in his time he wasn’t even close to being the most respected composer, especially not when it came to keyboard players and organists. Today, this particular piece is one of the hardest to perform and master.
25. Sonata No.1 – Roslavets
Nikolay Roslavets’ piece Sonata No.1 was composed in 1914 and was dedicated to the composer’s friend, pianist Petr Dmitrievich Danilin. It is said that Nikolay Roslavets composed this piece in such a way as if it was written by his friend.
However, Danilin did not accept this Sonata for performance, which subsequently led to a misunderstanding. Nikolay Roslavets believed that Danilin had refused to play the piece because of its lack of virtuosity, but in actuality, it was his opinion about modernist tendencies of the Sonata No.1 by the composer.
An incredibly daunting piece consisting of only three movements. This Sonata is different from traditional pieces by its classical form combined with modernist harmonic and rhythmic bases.
26. Toccata – Ravel
Ravel makes another appearance on the list, this time with Toccata which was composed between 1914 and 1917. It became one of Ravel’s best-known pieces and featured in theater and concert hall repertoires, as well as appearing on symphony programs.
Ravel composed the piece for solo piano that still stands the test of time. Only virtuosos can play it with the correct precision and classic elegance.
27. Etude No.45 – Méreaux
Jean-Amédée Lefroid de Méreaux’ Etude No.45 was composed in 1855. The Etude displays a great deal of miscellaneous technical demands that will appear rather difficult to the novice.
However, upon closer examination, it will be discovered that each and every technical demand is executed with a great degree of ease. The truly difficult part is to string along with this entire composition and play it in a clean and precise manner (without mistakes).
28. Sonata Pathétique – Beethoven
No surprise that Beethoven makes an appearance once more, this time with Sonata Pathétique. This piano piece was composed in 1798 and is considered to be the best piano sonata of all time.
This piece is all about extremes, it starts off peaceful and calm, but turns dark very quickly; out of nowhere, there are dramatic pauses that bring feelings of sorrow. It is a piece that just screams emotions, and people have always known it to be his best work.
Most pianists have a hard time playing it properly because the energy of the piece brings a lot of pressure.
29. Piano Concerto No.2 – Prokofiev
Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 was composed in autumn 1913. This Piano Concerto is the most successful of the Five, and it is one of his most popular works.
Its composition was preceded by a long and exhausting search for an idea. The composer wanted to create something new, striving for originality.
A dense and heavy theme does not take its origin from national folklore but from a feeling of infinite sadness and grief, which Prokofiev experienced hearing the sound of the wind one autumn day. A truly hard and difficult piano piece.
30. Le Preux – Alkan
We close off the list with another extremely hard piano piece. Alkan’s Le Preux was composed in 1844 and it’s a monster of a piece. In fact, it was so hard that Chopin himself called Alkan the most talented pianist in the world.
You can hear from his work that this piece is filled with a lot of emotion, which is what makes it so hard to play. The wide range of chords and octaves make the piece feel like your hands are dancing around the instrument. This song will take you through an emotional roller coaster.
The piano is truly a hard instrument to master since there are so many hard pieces of music around. These piano pieces are the hardest out there, they will truly test your skills to get something out of them.
I recommend trying these pieces after you have some experience playing the piano because it will be easier for you to understand what’s going on with each piece if you know how to play some easier pieces as well.
Pianists who master these hard piano pieces deserve a lot of respect. You’ll have to work really hard to get to a certain level of skill which will be extremely high. Have fun trying these pieces, and good luck getting them under your belt.