How hard is a piece of music: exhibit A

The trouble with grading a piece of piano music is that one has to agree that certain things that one can do on the piano should be learned in a particular order.  The traditional view is that the easiest music is where the thumbs share middle C and only white notes are played. Oh yes, and the rhythm should be a simple sequence of crotchets.

Meantime, school kids from all ends of the globe gather around classroom pianos to teach each other a sequence of tonic chords (moving around the keyboard, in a swing groove) to be played in duet with a friend playing a melody that requires shifts in hand position (or, I suppose, turning over the thumb) and an extension beyond the five-finger position. And nearly every school child with access to a piano seems to be able to learn this feat of keyboard skill.

Should we be taking a new look at what makes a piece of music easy or hard?

Many method books these days start with students playing on the black notes. Let’s face it, starting on black notes has many attractions: the placement of the black notes on the keyboard creates a more natural rounded finger/soft hand position from the outset, and the groups of two and three black notes are straightforward to locate on the keyboard.  But playing on only black notes requires the use of sharps, flats or key signatures in the first lesson (terribly confusing) or the use of some kind of graphic notation. And very small children can find the black notes very physically demanding to depress, and almost impossible to play with anything like a legato touch, let alone creating any reliable dynamic contrast when playing on black keys alone.

Immediately there is a clue to the question of how hard a piece of music is: who is the pianist?  A piece that might be desperately easy for a 9 year-old beginner might be quite impossible for a 4 year-old novice, simply because of the difference in size, power and fine motor skills between these two ages.

Next, nearly every method book begins with crotchets alone, or with crotchets and semibreves.  No rhythmic complexity will be admitted!  And this restriction on the music an absolute beginner can play is not a performative restriction at all – no, this restriction is due to the fact the student is being introduced to the reading of crotchets and semibreves (maybe minims too) in these introductory lessons, and the repertoire of beginner students must be reduced to that which they can read.

So the familiar school-piano tune will be deemed far too rhythmically demanding for at least a year’s worth of lessons – despite the fact children everywhere learn to play it with a quite reasonable degree of accuracy in the space of a lunchtime.

It turns out that when we have been asking how hard a piece of music is we are rarely asking how hard is it to play, and usually asking how hard it is to read.

Funnily enough, it seems that the stressful-to-read accidentals can be the notes that make patterns easy to comprehend, and the hard-to-read rhythms are the ones beginners love to teach each other to play.

One thought on “How hard is a piece of music: exhibit A

  1. I couldn’t agree more. While completing my BMus, I participated in a small group performance exercise playing a Macedonian secular dance piece, Majsko Oro. The time signature is in 18/8 (7+11) and after about an hour of failed attempts to even comprehend the rhythm, our teacher showed us a video of seven year old children dancing effortlessly to it. As soon as we stopped trying to read the music but feel it, the piece almost performed itself.

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