Finding new piano sheet music is one of the most exciting parts of being a pianist. I love visiting old book stores that have a sheet music section, as I’ve found treasures from composers I’ve never heard of. Learning to pick piano music that is at the right level for you (not boringly easy and not too hard), however, can be one of the most difficult parts of being a pianist.
Teachers are one of the best resources for picking music that challenges you but is within your current abilities to achieve. I could go on for days about how goal-setting (maybe just in America — that’s my only experience, so maybe it’s different elsewhere) has become an activity that burns us out. We choose all of our goals to challenge us in every aspect of who we are.
Challenge is good, but psychologically, we also need goals that we can check off quickly and easily to encourage us and relieve stress.
Thus, teachers are a important part of the piano journey. But many pianists don’t have the luxury of having a teacher. This guide is meant to help you find your own repertoire, whether you have a great teacher or not.
Some Psychology of Learning a Piece of Music
The human mind has a tendency to fixate on unfinished tasks, called the Zeigarnik Effect, and this tendency creates a tension that builds up in the back of our minds as more and more unfinished tasks pile up. Think about the, albeit brief, sense of relief you feel when you place a check mark next to an item on your to-do list.
Although learning musical repertoire is a longer process than going to the grocery store or mailing a thank-you note to dear Aunt Bertha for the lovely flowers she sent on your birthday, we still experience tension from incomplete tasks that poses difficulty to living in the present. As creating music requires presence, this creates an obstacle to our deepest desires and goals as musicians.
There are a couple of ways to solve this problem, the first of which is what all the pop-psychology blogs say about goal-setting: break the larger goal into single, actionable steps. So for learning a large piece, each day your goal should be a set number of measures, reaching a certain speed, or listening to a number of performances and choosing your approach to certain passages.
We can only reduce pieces down so much though, so the point of this post comes into play. We should pick piano music whose bite-sized chunks fit our level.
The second way to maintain your momentum by learning a lot of repertoire and to avoid frustration and burnout in your studies is to strategically pick your repertoire.
In this video by Dr. Josh Wright, he explains that you should have a few categories of repertoire based upon how long it takes you to learn the pieces: 1 month, 2–3 months, 6 months, and (if you’re an advanced student) a year, and sight reading.
The idea is that you are always learning one piece from each of these categories. For newer students, however, I suggest having a smaller category: pieces you can learn in a week.
Typically, when you first begin lessons at any age, the method books you use will contain smaller pieces that you can easily learn within a week, and it’s a nice feeling when your teacher places that sticker on the page the next week (even if you’re an adult!).
So, how do you pick piano music to fit all of these categories?
Determine Your Current Level
The first step to finding appropriate repertoire is to determine your current level. This is one of the trickiest parts, which is ever changing, as there are so many sets of levels: ABRSM, RCM, Henle, Sheet Music Plus, any random composer.
I personally like to stick with the three main categories of Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced, which has a lot of wiggle room, so we get subcategories like Early Beginner or Late Advanced.
Sheet Music Plus provides a description of 11 different levels and fits the into this Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced framework with examples of skills that fit into them. I really appreciate the detail of their descriptions, so I’m embedding it here:1
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Once you’ve determined your current level from this list, you then can choose repertoire to fit your needs.
To pick pieces that take a week to a month for you to learn should be decidedly at your level. It’s the length that should determine how long it takes you to learn it. So if you’re Level 6 (Late Intermediate), you should have maybe a page-long or 2-page long piece that will take you a week, maybe a 4-page piece to take you a month, and so on.
You’ll have to fine-tune this process based on your experiences, especially if you don’t have a teacher or method book to guide you.
The other part of picking repertoire is actually being able to find repertoire at specific levels. How can you know just by looking at a piece what level it is?
You can map it to the levels described above, but there are still so many pieces in the universe that you may not know about. First, you can explore Sheet Music Plus by level. Composers and arrangers have to set their pieces at levels when they upload, so when you search, you can filter by these levels, or if you have no idea what to look for, you can just click any of the levels in the table above, and it’ll show you everything in that level for you to browse.
Sheet Music Plus is a great resource for pop music and other copyrighted works; they do an excellent job of making sure the original artists get paid.
Other Sites to Find Piano Sheet Music
I’ve recently discovered a “Netflix” of piano repertoire, called Oktav. For $8–$9/month (paid yearly v. monthly), they boast hundreds of pieces of music spanning all genres. They organize by level as well and have a recommendation algorithm as well. I haven’t tried it out yet, but it may be worth a snoop!
For free public domain works, definitely check out IMSLP, a classical musician’s favorite website. They divide their works into 11 levels that almost match up with Sheet Music Plus’s with an added level that is basically Super Advanced.
They have a page dedicated to sorting by level, so in the dropdown list, you can choose whichever level you are and find tons of free sheet music. I love to pick entire books as my sight reading from this resource.
Good sight reading options are usually one level below your current level, so picking entire books to just read through from IMSLP is a great, cheap option, especially if you have a tablet to read them from, so you don’t have to print them out.
Finally, a section of the shop here at Girl in Blue Music is dedicated just to sheet music! I label according to the broader beginner, late-beginner, early-intermediate, etc. categories.
Choose Repertoire To Challenge and Entertain You
Overall, one of the most important ways to keep having fun at the piano is to pick repertoire that you enjoy and that doesn’t frustrate you too much. This requires limiting yourself to 3–4 pieces at once that are all around your level. You should vary the length of pieces as well, so that you get to revel in the feeling of success when you complete shorter pieces often and so that you can feel truly accomplished when you’ve learned a longer, more difficult piece.
Picking books to sight read from is an excellent way to sharpen your reading skills as well as let yourself be exposed to a large amount of new music, which is also encouraging and keeps you from getting tired of the same pieces you’ve been working on for days.
I hope this guide is helpful! If you have any questions, please comment below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Happy practicing, and stay safe!