Piano Playing Skill Levels

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Question: Hi Albert,

I often see references to piano skill classification, but how does an individual know at what skill level he/she is playing at, if the person isn’t taking structured piano training? The skill levels I’ve seen being used are: early beginner, beginner, late beginner, early intermediate, intermediate, late intermediate, and advanced.

Are there some criteria involved such as knowing major and/or minor chords only, versus say, knowing all of the chords? The same with scales. If a person knows only the major scales, wouldn’t that person be at a skill level lower than someone who knows all of the scales? Is reading sheet music involved? How about playing by ear?

Knowing your skill level would be particularly important when purchasing sheet music online, when you can’t see the music. You don’t want to buy music that is too difficult, but you don’t want it to be too easy either. So how do I know my skill level?

Thanks for your excellent website.

– Willard Crawford (Llano, California, USA)

Albert’s reply: Piano skill level classifications involve two primary areas: technical difficulty and musical complexity. First and foremost is technical difficulty. I find this fact somewhat unfortunate, but it is inevitable and understandable.

The reason is that there is a difference between technical and musical difficulty. Some pieces that are technically very difficult are musically straightforward. An example is the first Chopin etude, with its sprawling arpeggios which require the right hand to race up and down the keyboard.

The etude can easily be reduced to chords in a chorale-like setting. There is no melody per se, just harmonies.

Curiously, technical complexity often interferes with musical expression even when the difficulties are surmounted with virtuosity. Music students tend to get so caught up in the individual notes that they overlook the harmonies that they form and the need to shape those harmonies. Practicing just the harmonies, in block chords (as in the above Chopin etude), allows us immediately to recognize the musical structure, and phrasing and dynamic shaping become largely self-evident.

The reverse is also the case: Musically very difficult pieces are often technically “easy.” Mozart’s music is a case in point. There’s never a superfluous note in all of Mozart’s output. Every note is clear and transparent. His music doesn’t require the outright virtuosity of Liszt or Chopin, for instance, yet this very characteristic makes performing his music at least as demanding technically, since there is absolutely no room for error! Detailed control of sound and timing in deceptively “simple” music such as Mozart’s may not be overtly virtuosic in the athletic sense, but it requires no less skill.

The second area of piano skill level classification is music theory. Piano methods invariably start with C major as level one, which makes sense from a music theoretical standpoint. Accidentals are introduced one by one, and key signatures are usually encountered in level 2. Each level introduces more accidentals, with their corresponding key signatures and scales.

In terms of rhythmic complexity, higher piano skill levels also introduce shorter note values, starting with eighth notes, then sixteenth notes and the occasional 32nd note. The more complex the music, the greater independence of the hands is required. Independence of the hands typically involves playing different yet compatible rhythms simultaneously. At the early levels, either one hand plays at a time, or the left hand holds a very basic accompaniment while the right hand plays the melody. The hands become interdependent as the music increases in complexity. At an early advanced stage – say, the Bach Three-Part Sinfonias – the hands often must share the work of playing a middle voice while each hand plays its own voice.

Piano skill levels generally are classified as beginner, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced and advanced; or they run across a spectrum from 1 to 8. The nomenclature is misleading in that, in some sense, nearly all music is advanced. By that I mean that an advanced pianist would play a beginning-level piece much better than the beginner. It takes a master to play “easy” music truly beautifully!

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