The “Moonlight Sonata” is arguably one of the most iconic classical pieces of all time and has been used many times in pop culture. The official name of the piece is Piano Sonata no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 27 no. 2. It was published in 1802 and Beethoven initially titled it ‘Sonata quasi una Fantasia’, which means ‘sonata almost like a fantasy, in Italian. This showed the improvisational and emotional manner Beethoven intended for the piece, since a fantasy is a less structured, more romantically expressive type of song than a sonata.
The nickname “Moonlight Sonata” was coined by a German poet in the 1830s who compared the first movement to a boat floating on a moonlit lake. This is interesting because the moonlight name was not actually used by Beethoven. Some notes found on a manuscript indicate that the first movement was inspired by the death scene in Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.” The sonata in turn inspired Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” some years later, representing the cycle of composers inspiring each other over the years.
Most sonatas follow the format of having an upbeat first movement, a slower second movement, and another upbeat third movement. But this sonata features a somber first movement, a short and lighthearted second movement, and a fast and tumultuous third movement. The piece is very emotional and written in a more romantic style than what was typical for the time, a sign of the late classical era.
This sonata is a brilliant piece of music that can be technically and emotionally demanding to play, especially for beginners. However, with the proper approach and practice routine, it is certainly an attainable piece for beginner to intermediate pianists. So just how difficult is this piece? This article will cover some of the more difficult areas of the piece to help prepare students to play this weighty sonata.
1st Movement: Adagio Sostenuto
The first movement is what most people think of when they hear “Moonlight Sonata.” It is slow, somber, and full of emotion. The tempo marking adagio sostenuto means slow and sustained. The volume of the overall piece doesn’t really go above the piano dynamic marking, except for maybe an occasional crescendo. This means the pianist must be able to subtly express a range of emotions within a very subdued dynamic range.
From a technical standpoint, this movement is not overly difficult to play. It features a triplet ostinato, which is a specific rhythm that repeats over and over, played with the right hand. The left hand plays octaves in the bass or octave chords.
The phrase ‘sempre pianissimo e senza sordini’ means always pianissimo (very quiet) and without mutes, or dampers. This essentially means to play the movement with the pedal down the whole time, but pianos in Beethoven’s day had shorter sustain times, and if you did that with a piano today the notes would soon muddle together. The pedal is then left to the discretion of the player, to achieve a light perpetual sustain.
The melody starts in measure 5. It is played as a new voice with the right hand, and is meant to sing out over the other notes. It is important to practice finger independence here as the melody is often played with the 4 and 5 while the other three fingers continue the ostinato. It is also recommended that you keep this melody steady, to contrast the dotted eight notes with the triplet rhythm.
A great exercise to begin learning the arpeggiated chords of the ostinato is to play sections with just blocked chords, making sure to use proper fingering. Here is an example from the beginning of the piece.
Another area certain pianists may find difficult is the 9th which must be reached in the right hand here. If this is difficult for you, be sure to practice stretching your fingers wide enough to reach the B and A, and to practice smoothly transitioning to it.
The nextsection to be aware of is where the arpeggios start in the development section. Take care to learn the accidentals well and practice the arpeggios as chords with proper fingering. Note the double sharp sign in front of the F in the first measure. Make sure that you play F double sharp (enharmonic G).
While these measures look like they have a lot of notes, the tempo is quite slow so it is very manageable.
Much of the difficulty of this movement lies in having dynamic control and allowing the melody to sing at the correct times, keeping the rolling ostinato at a subtle volume below it, and taking care that the left does not play the bass too loudly.
2nd Movement: Allegretto
The second movement of the sonata is often overlooked, and was described by Franz Liszt as “a flower between two chasms.” It is to be played allegretto, or fairly briskly, not very quickly but fast enough to keep the momentum of the piece up. It seems to sparkle like a ray of sun between the two storms that are the first and third movements. But don’t take that as belittling this movement, as it is delightfully expressive and brightly contrasts with the other two movements. Instead of completely changing keys, Beethoven keeps this movement in a key related to C-sharp by writing it in D-flat major, the major key of the enharmonic note D-flat.
One of the biggest technical difficulties in this movement is maintaining a legato sound when playing intervals.
To achieve this sound, make sure to use the recommended fingering to make sure that at least one note of each interval is ‘connected’ to a note of the next by using adjacent fingering (such as the 5 on D-flat to 4 on C while the 2 repeats the note A-flat in the first two measures).
Also, be sure to distinguish between the slurs and ties as there are several of both. Remember slurs indicate a ‘connected’ sound between two different notes, and ties connect the length of one note to the length of the next note with the same pitch.
There are sections that indicate legato between octaves. While this may sound difficult, the effect can be achieved by playing the top notes of the actives with the fingering 5-4. Remember also to ‘hear’ the connection in your head before playing it.
Much of the piece sounds like a series of melodic questions and answers. This is the marvelous musicality of the second movement, and be sure to take full advantage of the range of dynamics this movement provides after the restrained sorrow of the first.
3rd Movement: Presto Agitato
The third movement of the sonata is known to be a bit of a behemoth, challenging even for intermediate to advanced players. If you are attempting this piece as a beginner, be sure to practice scales and arpeggios well before starting to learn it. It is quite fast, as presto agitato describes, meaning very quickly with excitement or agitation.
Remember: if you want to play FAST, you must first play SLOW, in SMALL SECTIONS. If you can get the notes into your fingers, you can play slowly, and if you can play slowly you likely can play quickly IF you increase speed GRADUALLY. Therefore, it cannot be emphasized enough to start slow and don’t play faster than you can play without mistakes. The more mistakes you make the longer it will take to play the correct notes. It may seem like a very long time before you are comfortable with a performance speed, but it is possible with slow, gradual practice. If you are able to master this piece, it will likely be a huge confidence booster and a catalyst for you to learn more pieces that you may have thought were too difficult before.
The piece starts out with a series of ascending arpeggios, first as a C-sharp minor chord, then a G-sharp major chord, then a C-sharp major chord.
This excerpt shows the first set of arpeggios with two eighth-note C-sharp chords at the end of the line. There are several passages like this throughout the song. To practice this, practice the arpeggios as blocked chords, like this.
You can also practice the arpeggios with different rhythms to help play the notes evenly.
In the next section, there are several quick alternating notes.
Make sure to keep these notes even in the right hand, and practice them as block intervals to learn the notes.
The next new section features a melody in the right hand with a quick Alberti bass in the left hand. You may want to play the left hand as blocked chords for this section to learn the notes.
It is very easy to play an Alberti Bass pattern unevenly since the thumb is generally heavier that the other fingers. Play the left hand slowly and increase speed, and listen very carefully for evenness in all the notes of the pattern.
The melody then becomes more intense and played by octaves. These may be relatively difficult if you are not comfortable moving octaves quickly.
Some tips for playing octaves quickly and accurately are
- Play slowly at first
- Play the melody with only your thumb
- Play the melody with only your 5 (or 4 if you use it) an octave up
- Play ‘ghost’ notes, where you move to the next octave but don’t play. This will allow you to practice the motion without hearing a potential mistake
Here you may find difficulty playing the trill with the 3-4 while the thumb holds down the bottom note of the octave. Fortunately, this is meant to be a very short trill. It is sufficient to play it (and similar sections) like this.
Practice it first without the bottom note of the octave. Then practice only pressing the bottom note with the first note of the trill. Eventually, you should be able to play the ornamentation smoothly with the octave.
Shortly after follows this passage with several 16th notes in the right hand.
This is where scale practice will especially help. Make sure to keep the notes even and don’t rush.
The next section has several staccato intervals and this pattern of ‘short slur-red’ with various thirds and fourths.
To achieve this with intervals that share notes, make sure that the ‘unshared’ note is played connected to the next unique note. For example in the first measure, the B and D-sharp would be played with 2 and 4 respectively. To slide to the next third, the 2 must repeat the note with the same finger but the D-sharp played with 2 can connect to the G-sharp played with 1.
There are a few wide intervals in this piece that will take quite a bit of stretching the hand out for pianists with average hands. Here there is a ninth in the right hand with a fourth above the C-sharp to be played with the 2.
Practice playing through the measure first just playing the F-sharp and D-sharp in the right hand, and then just the C-sharp and the F-sharp. Then try to put them together to play the full chord. Your hands have muscles and should warm up and stretch like any other part of your body before physical activity. Make sure your hands are warmed up and maybe do light stretching of your thumb and pinky to prepare your hand for this reach.
Also be sure to practice the ornamentation to the first note of the next measure. Practice connecting the 3 on G-sharp to the 5 on D-sharp, then try to connect all three notes.
Later in the song, there are sections where the melody is played with chords in the right hand. Moving entire chords at this speed may be difficult.
To practice this, first play the section through using one finger to play one layer of the chords at a time. Then separate the chords into two sets of two-note intervals and practice those. For the above example, your practice progression for the second measure might look like this.
Towards the end of the piece, there are more arpeggios played with the right hand. This is what arpeggio practice will prepare you for.
Practice these as blocked chords, and take care to keep them even as you increase the tempo (after starting slow).
After this, there is a long ascending chromatic scale to a climactic trill, which then dramatically descends back down a flurry of notes to a low F-double sharp bass octave and G-sharp octave.
Obviously, having practiced chromatic scales will help with this section. Take care to keep the quintuplets in their own beat. Also note that the triplet and group of four 32nd notes take up one beat together. Again, practice this very slowly to learn how the notes fit into the beats.
For the descent in measure 188, while it may look daunting it is not overly difficult. The tempo is fast but somewhat improvisational. Start slow, figure out the notes and a comfortable fingering, then slowly increase the tempo.
As you approach the very end of the piece, we see arpeggios in both hands. Follow the same practice routine for single-hand arpeggios in the left hand, then both hands. Slowly start playing the individual notes and very gradually increase the tempo.
End this piece with a pair of very decisive, strong fortissimo C-sharp chords in both hands.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Moonlight Sonata?
It is difficult to say how long learning the entire sonata may take. The first movement could perhaps feasibly be le arned by an intermediate beginner in 6-10 weeks. The second movement could take 4-6 weeks. The last movement could take 2-4 months, perhaps longer depending on the time to bring all the music up to tempo. Altogether it could take 8-10 months to learn the entire piece. But these estimates are extremely subjective, depending on a pianist’s previous experience, daily practice time, technical knowledge, finger mobility, and consistency. If you are looking for a big piece to tackle to build your repertoire and expand your musical experience, this would be a worthy target for your effort.
Learning the Moonlight Sonata is no small feat, especially for beginners. It would take some time and a great deal of slow, focused practice, especially for the third movement. It requires technical prowess, endurance, dynamic control, and deft emotional control. But if you are willing to put in the work, you will be rewarded with the opportunity to play and interpret the exquisite piece that is the Moonlight Sonata.