I am one in a long line of presumptuous amateurs who makes music that they themselves cannot play, so I must ask around to know whether my music is what you might call "reasonable" to be performed. I am fine with it being hard to play, but it should not be physically impossible, impossible for anyone below the level of Volodos, or unusually awkward for the hands which the music does not justify.

  • To further specify "reasonable": imagine if you will a hypothetical pianist who is at the level where they, with practice, could perform average Frans Liszt pieces to a level of quality and musicality that's perhaps not good enough for a disc but good for a grainy YouTube video, and satisfies them. I hold no expectations that any such pianist will ever just show up and play what I made, but allowing this hypothetical figure to effectively perform it is what I wish to accomplish to be personally satisfied with my arrangement.

My specific query is about arpeggiated chords. How broad can I make them, and still allow a performer to make it sound as a single chord?

The piece in question is part of a piano arrangement of Shostakovich's 7th symphony. Here's the section of music as the computer plays it, so you can judge the tempo for yourself. And here's a plain image of the relevant passage. Tempo is ♩ = 120.

arpeggiated chords passage

When making my arrangements I tend to use other pieces as reference for physical limitations. Here, arpeggiated chords of this width might be found in Liszt's Heroischer Marsch S.231.

An obvious difference is that those chords are used only at the starts of measures, so they may be stretched out for effect. That's less possible in my score, where they are repeated twice per measure. The overall tempo can be slowed down, as it's an expressive section where rubato is very welcome, but the broad chords - which evolve from much smaller and non-arpeggiated chords - should continue sounding like "one whole", rather than an ascending set of notes. That gradual widening of the chords is also why I haven't already removed or moved up the bottom notes by an octave - the downwards line over the course of these measures is one that I wish to preserve, if I can.

So the question is: does this music seem reasonable? And if not, what is about the width where I should start considering removing or replacing notes so that the overall chord is more manageable? What are some general guidelines here?

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    Don't forget to take into account that Liszt had hands like shovels. He [& Rachmaninov] could reach a 13th.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 8:05
  • @Tetsujin Thanks, that's fair. Liszt is my go-to reference because most of his pieces are what I'd call "reasonable", they are technically challenging but still quite commonly played, unlike composers like Alkan or Méreaux. And his Beethoven symphony transcriptions are a good reference for my amateur Shostakovich symphony arrangements :)
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 8:10
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    Define "reasonable" in music. Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 15:10
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    @user1079505 There's 568 questions with the word "playable" on this site - many ask for physical playability but a great deal are about reasonable playability, e.g. music.stackexchange.com/questions/89826/… Now I understand that there may be a wider range of skill for the piano and my indication of "below Volodos" may not be accurate enough - so could you perhaps suggest another way to define it?
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 15:47
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    I found out I have been looking at a wrong score without paying attention. So we were in fact not looking at the same score. I intend to delete my former comments. Anyway thanks for providing the correct link. Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 15:07

2 Answers 2


Reasonable? Almost

What makes this particularly challenging is less the span and more the fact that the arpeggios are mimicking a pizzicato effect, so pedal can only help in the most sparing way. Thus, where a pianist would otherwise use the pedal for some of the long notes in the right hand, that's not an option here.

Even so, most of this would be difficult, but playable for the hypothetical pianist proposed in the OP. There is one section, however, which, at best, borders on the impossible.

To understand the unreasonable part, first some discussion of the reasonable parts.

Where and how it's reasonable

Right hand assistance

Mm. 48–54b2 and mm. 60ff. can be played, particularly if the player has a wide span. As long as the pianist can reach a tenth, then the arpeggios' topmost Gs can be taken by the right hand when desired.

For example, the arpeggios in m. 53 are a bit awkward for because of how the chord is laid out. In that case, I can use my right-hand thumb, and no one's the wiser.

Pedal assistance

M. 54, can also use the above approach, but with the additional requirement of some judicious pedaling to keep the melody legato. On beats 1 and 2, the arpeggio can be played pizz., but then the pedal must catch the melody G and B, respectively, to connect them to their respective following A and C.

Where and how it's unreasonable

Mm. 55–59

Here, the span in the right hand precludes using it to help the left hand.

Measure 55 requires an eleventh, which, arpeggios aside, is not a reasonable expectation, especially since pedal isn't an option here.

Overall, these measure both don't allow for a right-hand or pedal assist, so the left-hand gymnastics involved at the speed required because extremely difficult to play accurately.

The pianistic solution doesn't work

Faced with this situation, most pianists would play the lowest note as a grace note before the beat and then play the remaining notes separately, using the pedal to make the connection. However, both the grace note and pedal would defeat the sound being sought here, so the "pianistic solution" doesn't work.

  • Thank you for your detailed answer :) One thing regarding measure 55 and onwards, my own consideration was that as soon as the arpeggio in beat 2 is released (before beat 3 starts), one could press down the sustain pedal and then release the high E, and jump to the lower melody. Then not release the pedal again until the end of beat 1 in the next measure. This would result in the E not sounding for the whole 3 measures but only just over 1, but 3 measures at this tempo would turn pretty inaudible anyway - the reason I notated it the full length was to indicate the overall melody.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 6:37
  • @KeizerHarm Agreed. It could be executed exactly as you say. (The left hand could also jump up to play m55b3.) Consider putting the "unnecessary" tied notes in parentheses. That would help clarify your intentions — especially if you included a footnote.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 7:03
  • Good suggestions. I think what I will also do is parenthesis the bottom notes of the arpeggios when on beat 2. Skipping the lower note the second time allows one to take more time for the first and hopefully still preserve the melodic line.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 9:38
  • One last question: what about the way the chords in ms. 53 look like makes you consider them awkward? My understanding here is a bit limited - the best I can figure is that you generally want a black note in the middle so you can pull your fingers to there over your thumb on a white key, but that's where my understanding ends.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 9:41
  • @KeizerHarm In m53... 1) suppose I use fingers 5-4-2-1, then C-G is an uncomfortable span for 5-4; 2) with 5-3-2-1, G-Eb is an uncomfortable span fir 3-2; 3) using 5-2-1-X, it's uncomfortable to cross over from 1 on Eb to another finger on G.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 14:49

You're sort of shifting back and forth between "reasonable" and "physical limit."

So much depends on the notion of "reasonable" and what anyone thinks "hard to play" means.

One way to think of it is how likely are you to ever get a pianist to play something you wrote? I think it's reasonable to say the harder to play the less likely it will get played.

If your point of reference is Liszt and Rachmaninoff, you set the bar at the highest level, and less likely to get played.

If the point of reference were Mozart or Satie, for example, it's a lot less difficult, and more likely to get played.

That's just my opinion. And I'm an amateur, so I set the difficulty bar low. But we're talking about a whole spectrum from easy to most difficult and there really isn't a way to say there is one right or "reasonable" level.

About your particular chords. In some places you have the span of a tenth. You see than in lots of piano music, but it's also pointed out as hard to play for average hands. Arpeggiating it makes it more do-able. When the span gets to nearly two octaves it will be harder to play even as an arpeggio. But, there are a lot of octave doublings in the chords so you could shrink down the span by omitting some of the octave doublings. If you kept the span to a tenth, the arpeggios will be easier while still providing the sound of open voiced chords.

If you do go with very wide chords, at least consider what the specific piano fingers will be rather than relying only on the interval size. In the Liszt march there are some specific fingerings given for the very bitg arpeggios...

enter image description here

...because of the placement of the black keys those fit the hand fairly comfortably.

By comparison, this...

enter image description here

...if using similar fingering is less comfortable when reach the top G4. Not impossible, but just less comfortable. The point being you can test out fingerings (if you aren't already doing this) and try to be sympathetic to how it would feel to actually play passages.

  • I don't think I ever asked what was physically possible. Liszt is my reference point for a number of reasons, but the relevant one is that I think that most of his works are "hard but not unreasonable", unlike say Méreaux or Alkan who stretched piano music to their absolute physical limit (losing musicality along the way, in some views). Thousands of people perform Liszt, and maybe ten people perform Alkan on a regular basis - for me there's a difference.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 14:19
  • I have little hope that any actual pianist is going to come across my works, let alone attempt to play them. So my primary audience is myself and I enjoy writing an 80 minute symphony if I have more freedom in the technical department. But my secondary audience is a hypothetical pianist. That also helps constrain my hobby, otherwise I might as well write for piano rolls instead. This hypothetical pianist is capable of performing average Liszt pieces, but if my works are even harder or awkward to play then they wouldn't perform it either. So my goal is to be reasonable to this imagined figure.
    – KeizerHarm
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 14:23
  • I understand that, but then we're just disagreeing about what "reasonable" means. I put Liszt at the extreme end of difficulty even if there is more difficult piano music to be found. I don't equate the extreme end of difficulty with a reasonable level. Again that's just my perspective. I wouldn't take Liszt level playing for granted. Not if I ever hoped to hear something actually performed. Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 14:29
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    Keeping with the sort of modernist theme Bartok's Mikrokosmos seems like one good point of reference, especially because it's graded. Perhaps too easy for your taste, but volumes V and VI are the high level sections. Learning more toward Romanticism, I would look into Grieg's Lyrical Pieces. To me they epitomize all the beauty of the romantic style, but at a level for mere mortal pianists. :-) Just some idea to add you the Liszt standard you already have. Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 15:20
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    @KeizerHarm Your earlier comparison of Liszt and Alkan is misleading. Alkan is rarely performed not because his music is hard but because it's largely unknown. Liszt on a program brings a bigger audience than does Alkan.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 15:58

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