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What are the hardest piano songs ever?

As musicians, we often look up to the best and hope to emulate them in some way. The piano is a versatile instrument with a long history, and over the years, some very creative musicians have written impressive music for it.

Defining “Hardest”

When we think about difficult songs to play on the piano, we usually mean technical difficulty—fast fingers, dense chords, and big leaps. But even beginners understand that playing fast isn’t all there is to the piano. Classical pianists have to sight-read dense musical scores. And jazz pianists improvise creative riffs and licks while making sense of complex chord progressions.

I researched and read numerous “hardest songs on the piano ever” lists on the internet and no two agree, though most stick to classical pieces. To cover the full diversity of piano difficulty, we’ve put together a list that spans several genres. Expect to meet some lesser-known composers and compositions.

Breaking Down the Hardest Piano Pieces

Many of the piano’s most difficult pieces were written recently. I discovered mind-bending experimental compositions from the twentieth century that aren’t just technically advanced, but difficult to understand.

I also learned from Sam Vesely, Pianote’s resident jazz expert, that there are numerous elements (chord changes, harmonies, rhythms, the piano’s role within a band, etc.) that make a jazz piece difficult. There are also some very interesting experiments happening in the newer jazz fusion genres.

Arranged in no particular order, here is a breakdown of some of the world’s hardest piano songs.

1. “Piano Concerto No. 3”—Sergei Rachmaninoff

Why it’s hard: Rachmaninoff intended Concerto No. 3 as a show-off piece to dazzle audiences on his first American tour. If you ask any classical musician what the hardest song on the piano is, chances are they’ll say, “the Rach 3.” This work graces many top-ten lists for good reason: despite being based around a relatively simple, singable theme, this concerto requires both virtuosity and passion.

2. “La Campanella”—Franz Liszt

Why it’s hard: “The Little Bell” by Liszt requires extremely big leaps in the right hand done at dizzyingly fast speeds. The melody is brought out by the thumb, but the repeating D-sharps in the pinky act as a twinkling “bell.” This masterpiece in virtuosity and composition is an arrangement of a melody by Paganini, one of the most famous virtuosic violinists who ever lived.

3. “Take the A Train”—as performed by Oscar Peterson

Why it’s hard: Sam names highly variable harmonies and a high-precision, “nearly impossible to recreate” right hand as reasons for why this piece is so challenging. But what I love most about Oscar Peterson’s performance is that despite the speed and climax near the end, Peterson never relinquishes control; he keeps it cool. There’s a reason why Louis Armstrong called him “the man with four hands.”

4. “Gaspard de la Nuit”—Maurice Ravel

Why it’s hard: Ravel wrote “Gaspard de la Nuit” to one-up Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey.” In other words, this whirlwind of a piece was designed to be hard. And it’s lived up to its name—today, the three-part suite makes a frequent appearance on lists of difficult piano pieces. The dense score is nearly incomprehensible, and pianist Steven Osborne even likened it to solving never-ending quadratic equations.

5. “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”—Franz Liszt

Why it’s hard: “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” isn’t the hardest piece ever, but it’s certainly one of the most well-known and was made famous by Tom and Jerry. This piece is also the only one on this list I’ve attempted myself, so I feel I can speak more to it.

Both the dramatic lassan and the energetic friska sections of the Rhapsody contain big leaps, tangling chords, and swift runs that require a high level of dexterity and accuracy. But while this song can be frustratingly difficult, it’s also super rewarding. The melody is iconic, and you can tell the piece was designed to be performed.

6. “Mists”—Iannis Xenakis

Why it’s hard: While “Mists” is technically challenging, more than anything, it’s an intellectual feat to understand. Considered stochastic music (music composed with the aid of equations and probability), “Mists” was composed by an architect and composer who used math formulas to make mind-bending music. Check out how one academic re-creates the stochastic sections of “Mists” with the programming language Python.

7. “Hammerklavier” (Sonata No. 29 Op. 106)—Ludwig van Beethoven

Why it’s hard: Inspired by a new, six-octave piano that was gifted to him, Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” (which means pianoforte in German) celebrates the new capabilities of the instrument. This piece features big, majestic chords and rapid passages. Apparently, it was the only sonata Beethoven wrote a metronome marking for (132)—a speed which only the most skilled pianists can follow.

8. “Giant Steps”—John Coltrane

Why it’s hard: Being able to improvise on “Giant Steps” is considered a rite of passage for many jazz musicians. The reason why this piece is so challenging to improvise upon is because the chord progression is so unusual. The music theory behind the genius of “Giant Steps” is complex but fascinating—check out the short documentary above and try not to get a headache!

9. “Sonata No. 5”—Alexander Scriabin

Why it’s hard: You can tell this song will be intense by the sheer mess of trills and glissandos at the very beginning. Scriabin’s fifth sonata has a reputation for being tough, and its dense score, gigantic chords, key changes, and speed make this song maze-like. Inspired by a poem by the composer, its passages conjure up images of “flight” and “spirals” and play with non-traditional sonata form.

10. “L’escalier du diable” (“The Devil’s Staircase”) – Ligeti

Why it’s hard: With a name like “the devil’s staircase,” this piece is rightfully terrifying. Ligeti was fascinated by mathematics and Escher’s staircase, along with the existential crisis of climbing never-ending stairs.

The chords involved in this piece will tie your fingers into knots, but the most extraordinary part of Etude No. 13 may be its eight fortes! For a fascinating deep dive into the theory behind this piece, see Explore the Score’s walkthrough here.

Playing the Most Difficult Piano Songs

Unfortunately, these pieces are probably inaccessible to most people. Professionals train for decades before they can tackle the hardest piano pieces.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should give up! And just because a song is hard, doesn’t mean it sounds nice. Personally, I find some of the experimental pieces interesting, but I wouldn’t choose them for my next road trip soundtrack.

At Pianote, we believe that at the end of the day, music should create joy. So, find pieces that you like the sound of, that are just hard enough to give you a meaningful challenge and sense of achievement.

And who knows? Perhaps one day you’ll have the chops to bust out Ligeti!

Charmaine Li

Charmaine Li is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and classically trained pianist with previous experience teaching piano and music theory. She loves thinking and writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience.