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As part of my practice and for my mini-concerts I compose arrangements to songs. Most of them so far are Simon & Garfunkel songs. I also have started giving away some sheet music to some friends of mine who like change of style or just like my arrangements. (all for personal use / a hobby, not a vocation).

Is there a way I could describe the difficulty of an arrangement, how difficult to play, or am I just stuck with "hard" or "pretty easy" (whatever those mean).

Perhaps I could rank them by how many years a person would have to practice piano before it is easy? Like, Rage Over A Lost penny would take me over a year to master end to end at my current level, but other songs that used to be difficult are really easy.

That system might not work, but maybe there is a ranking system. How are classical pieces' difficulties described? Is there a universal ranking system with some well known examples?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Two hints:

  • Many editors have their own system and some large institutions have a grade system that can be an inspiration. One of the most respected is the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music or ABRSM. They publish and update frequently their requirements for instruments, singing and theory.

    If you look at the current Piano curiculum, you will see a list of pieces for each level from 1 to 8. It can give you a reference for the difficulty of pieces you may know and help you better identify how your arrangements are placed.

  • Apart from the grade system (which is not relevant for many situations), there are main variables which are typical and you can use them as a more precise indication such as (Reading 1, Tempo 3, Hands 2) according to the number of yes to the example questions I list below.

    • Reading difficulty Key signature with many sharps or flats ? Many accidentals ? Change of keys ? Many notes over or under the ledger lines? Many chords on the left hand ? Many different chords ? Overall length ?

    • Tempo and rhythm difficulty Has the piece to be played quickly to sound good ? Are there trills or tremolos ? Many different rythms ? Dotted notes ? Syncopation ? Implicit Swing ? Rythms difference between left and right hand ?

    • Hand, wrist and arm technique Largest interval for the hand ? A lot of chords ? glissandos ? octave scales ? Inversion of hands ? Jumping (think waltz) and arpegios ? Boogie-Woogie bass ? Difference in style and volume between the two hands or for the same hand (tempo, staccato, subdued voicings) ? Held notes ?

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It extremely difficult to rank music in terms of difficulty because difficult means different things to different people.

The best starting point is to work out how hard it would be to play the notes. Most amateur players can't really do anymore than learn notes.

Don't use the grading systems like ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall as examples because in the case of these tests it isn't music pieces that are graded, the grade is the way someone plays them. Think of a professional player playing a piece on a grade 8 syllabus, does this make the professional player only a grade 8 level player?

My suggestion would be to have a look at some books used for teaching the piano and then work out how the notes of your music compares to the exercises in these books. This might give you an idea as to how to describe them.

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