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When doing exercises on piano, what is the fundamental reason why some arpeggios are more difficult than others?

Here is an example of extremely hard arpeggio (if using the fingering 1, 2, 4): A major, first inversion enter image description here

I could not go faster than 95 for a quarter.

Here is an example of a difficult but much more easy : F sharp

enter image description here

I could play this one at 160 for a quarter with difficulty, when I'm in a very good shape.

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    In addition to the above: what inversion of the chords is being arpeggiated?
    – Aaron
    Mar 14 at 12:09
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    I'm only speaking of academic arpeggio (those used in all tones used by professional pianist when they train, in the same spirit as they train with scales in all tones), with the academic fingering. Mar 14 at 12:35
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    There is not just a single academic fingering. For root-position, two-octave arpeggios, some systems always use 1-2-3-1-2-3-5; other systems start on different fingers for arpeggios beginning on black keys. For other inversions there are even more variations. Professional pianists practice all of these.
    – Aaron
    Mar 14 at 12:38
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    Do you mean that the professionalist pianist practice, for a given fixed arpeggio tone, all variantes of fingering ? For what purpose ? I mean : if they prefer one fingering : why would they use the others in their life ? Mar 14 at 12:44
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    I think showing an example of a difficult arpeggio along with an example of an easier arpeggio in the question would improve it greatly. Mar 14 at 14:48
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Were there only white keys on a piano, you wouldn't be asking this question.

Were all our digits the same size and length, you wouldn't be asking this question.

Those are the reasons mainly why some arpeggios - and scales for that matter - are more difficult than others.

It would be impossible to have an 88 note keyboard with only white notes - it would be far too wide. So the black keys are squashed in between the white keys, making the keyboard at least practicable.

Arpeggios use different mixes of black and white keys, with several different patterns used. Where possible, short thumbs are used on white rather than black keys, for obvious reasons. But sometimes even that's not possible, so with the difference in location between black and white, it stands to reason some arps will be easier, some not. And having only five digits is a disadvantage too. If humans had more, it'd be easier to move up and down the keyboard. However, we have what we have. So we need to move hands left and right as we play down and up. That thumb then becomes pivotal, literally, in moving laterally. And it isn't always in the most helpful position.

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  • "It would be impossible to have an 88 note keyboard with only white notes" what about a piano without black keys? ;-) youtube.com/watch?v=tB8ITQGp-is Mar 14 at 13:44
  • @musicamante - interesting, but surely not 88 note?
    – Tim
    Mar 14 at 14:22
  • @Tim yes, it only has the common 52 white keys. And I wouldn't really call it that interesting, more an expensive oddity ;-) Mar 14 at 14:55
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    @musicamante - really it should be cheaper. They're saving on all those black bits.
    – Tim
    Mar 14 at 15:27
  • @Tim theoretically yes, but that depends on how "well" it's built: assuming they're just using a standard piano, removed the mechanical parts and their strings (thus changing its sound also), the only difference would be to create the keys as "plain" rectangles, possibly by only using molds of the high C. But, are they still using the hollow base of other keys? If they only used "white strings", how does it sound? How do string and board react to less tension? Did they change board and materials in order to reflect that? Possibly a lot of expansive thinking and engeneering, done pointlessly... Mar 14 at 16:08
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We need to define 'hard'. You might consider that C♯ major arpeggio is physically easier than C major. The fingers are already raised to hit the black notes, the thumb is in natural position for the one white note.

The first scale I teach is right hand B major. It's impossible to play with a wrong fingering. SO many ways to mess up the fingering of C major! And it destroys from the outset any idea that black notes are somehow 'hard'.

You're aware that standard fingering patterns DON'T put the thumb on a black note?

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  • Thank you. I have added a concrete example : just try my example and you will see how dificult is the first example, as compared to the second one. People in the reply thought that I was speaking about any arpeggio : I was only asking about "academic" arpeggio : those in books of scales/arpeggios. Mar 14 at 15:50
  • I dunno - I keep slipping up and changing my B Major scale fingering if I'm not careful.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 14 at 17:04
  • Really? Right hand? What are the options? Mar 14 at 17:35
  • This makes a great point about black keys that seems to missed entirely in @Tim's accepted answer. Mar 15 at 21:10
  • @LaurencePayne - Pretty sure I've used RH ring finger on E, LH ring finger on C#, pinky finger on a black note, the random slips go on...(and for repertoire as well as scales and arpeggios)
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 16 at 14:29
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Answered before we had specific examples in the OP
Harder to reach, harder to get an even touch.

Compare C-E-G-C to C♯-F-G♯-C♯

The first is easy to reach - and probably the one you first ever played. You can get your fingers nicely towards the front of each key; lots of room to play with, no issues with squeezing, twisting or being hard to reach.

C♯ on the other hand, because your thumb starts so far back your middle finger might be almost to the back of the key in order to get your little finger on the top C♯, making the whole thing a harder shape & with less leverage.

Additionally, if you extend each of those to two octaves… at what point do you slide your thumb underneath, & to where?

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  • See my answer above. Yes, if you put the thumb on a black key it can be very clumsy. That's why we generally don't. Mar 14 at 15:58
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The human hand naturally places the thumb on a white key, the 2nd and 3rd fingers on black keys, and the rest on either. An Arpeggio designed in the reverse of that pattern would be the most difficult.

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The reason is that you're playing legato, so in A major with the 4 finger on A and the thumb going to C#, you're passing your thumb under and up behind your 4 finger-- quite a challenge.

If you are using pedal, and you can move the 4 finger out of the way so the thumb can pass straight from C# to the next C#, it shouldn't be much harder than the F# chord. Normally, you'd rather put the thumb on E or A, but sometimes the awkward fingering makes it easier to bring the right note out (i.e. if you really need to bring out the C# as a melodic note).

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In the cases of the two arpeggios given, there are very clear differences that make the A major more difficult.

In the A major case, it's an important factor that it is in first inversion. Because of this, if choosing the right-hand fingering that begins with 1 on C#, it forces finger 4 to be placed well between two black keys. This in turn leads to finger 4 getting "stuck" when moving to get finger 1 onto the next C#. In arpeggios one wants to move laterally, but in this case, moving 4 on a white key (i.e., a long finger in a vertically lower position) to 1 on a black key (i.e., crossing a short finger to a vertically higher position) a fairly significant vertical movement is required (at minimum of finger 4 -- a difficult proposition by itself -- if not the whole hand).

For A major, the 2-1-4 right-hand fingering is far superior. I also prefer 4-2-1 for the left hand, which isn't suggested in the given example.

In the F# major case, all notes are at the same vertical height, so the lateral movements are much easier.

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