Many of my piano students, especially the adult beginners, have the goal of learning the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Often they want to know approximately what standard it is when lined up against the piano grades system.

So what grade would it be? Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 1st movement would be approximately grade 6 level if you are only concerned with playing the notes correctly. But to do it justice, the technical skill required to play this movement musically makes it diploma standard (ATCL/ARSM).

Below I’ll explain the reasons why it’s grade 6 level, and the reasons why it’s also diploma level, as well as discussing how long it takes for beginners to learn the first movement of Moonlight Sonata:

Why the Notes of Moonlight Sonata First Movement are Grade 6

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The famous opening of Moonlight Sonata

This movement of Moonlight Sonata is not (currently) set on a grade syllabus. If we are just talking about playing all the notes accurately, and nothing else, then the playing standard required is about grade 6.

The tempo is slow throughout, and the left hand is simple at face value – it often only plays one or two static chords per bar.

The key signature (C sharp minor) is somewhat challenging, and there are many accidentals (additional sharps or flats) scattered throughout the movement. However the adagio sostenuto tempo is slow enough to allow enough thinking time to get round these without much stress.

Let’s compare it with another Beethoven movement that was actually set for grade 6 on the ABRSM 2009-2010 piano syllabus – the second movement of Beethoven’s piano Sonata in C, WoO 51 (see extract below).

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Bars 16-17 of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, WoO 51, 2nd movement, set for ABRSM grade 6

As you can see, this similar movement that was officially set for grade 6 uses a similar right hand triplet pattern to that in Moonlight Sonata. Its tempo is also Adagio, similar to the Adagio Sostenuto of the moonlight sonata.

Why the First Movement of Moonlight Sonata is really Diploma Level

It is one thing being able to play all the right notes, but to really give a musical performance of this movement, a higher level of musical training and awareness is needed.

Moonlight Sonata as a whole sonata, not just the first movement, is on the official repertoire lists for both the ATCL and ARSM Piano Performance diplomas (at the time of writing). Yes the other movements are technically more demanding, but there are other reasons why even the first movement is considered diploma-level repertoire.

The first reason is the voicing in the right-hand; the melody line is mostly played with the fourth and fifth fingers (notoriously the weakest fingers for pretty much everybody!) whilst the remaining thumb, second finger and third finger simultaneously play arpeggios:

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Bars 16-18. See how the weaker right hand fingers have the tune

The weakest fingers of the hand are in charge of bringing out the melody louder than the arpeggio accompaniment, whilst making it legato at the same time. This requires immense control from the fingers which can only be built from many hours of practice.

The second challenging aspect of playing this movement is keeping the triplet quavers going continuously. Because they never stop at all until the last two bars, it is really obvious if the pulse wavers even a little bit. There is not much room for rubato in this movement – you are on a triplet quaver treadmill from the second you start.

The third reason that this movement is really a lot harder than grade 6 standard is the control needed to play the left hand appropriately. A controlled, even tone is needed, but the left-hand octaves still need to be played quietly. Because they are so low in pitch, and doubled up, the danger is that they will end up overpowering the right hand melody.

A player of an intermediate level is able to get close to the desired sound but still plays left-hand octaves with a lot of tension, which is not ideal!

How Long does it take Beginners to learn Moonlight Sonata 1st Movement on Piano?

Despite all this, it is often those relatively new to the piano that specifically want to learn this work, and of course that should be encouraged. People often want to know how long it will take them to learn it.

So how long does it take? The amount of time it takes for a pianist to learn the first movement of Moonlight Sonata completely depends on prior experience, as well as how much time is spent practising it each week. However, below I have outlined a suggestion of a sample schedule for an adult/teenage beginner pianist who has been learning piano for less than one year to learn it in 24 days.

These practice sessions do not need to be done on consecutive days – you are allowed days off! But do bear in mind that the best results come from regular practice, no matter how short the length of time you practice for is. Five minutes every single day is infinitely better than two hours in one go and then nothing for the rest of the week.

Practice session no.Bars/measures to practicePractice right hand, left hand, or both together
11 to 5Right
21 to 5Left, recap right, both
35 to 15Right
45 to 15Left, recap right, both
51 to 15Both
615 to 23Right
723 to 31Right
815 to 31Left
915 to 31Recap right, recap left, both
101 to 31Both
1132 to 38Right
1238 to 42Right
1332 to 42Left, recap right, both
1442 to 51Right
1542 to 51Left
1642 to 51Both
1751 to 60Right
1851 to 60Left
1951 to 60Both
201 to 60Both
2160 to the endRight
2260 to the endLeft
2360 to the endRecap right, recap left, both
241 to the endBoth

Similar works to Moonlight Sonata

If you like the first movement of Moonlight Sonata then you may also like the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in C minor Opus 13. It is a similar level of difficulty, i.e. the notes themselves are around grade 6 standard, but to play this piece really well you need a more advanced musical understanding.

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The opening of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata

As well as also being Adagio, this movement is a similar length to our Moonlight Sonata movement. Instead of the four sharps in the key signature, this has four flats. It also has a near continuous semiquaver pulse like the continuous triplets in the Moonlight Sonata.

The most similar aspect of this Pathétique movement compared to the Moonlight Sonata movement is passages where the right hand has both the tune in the top line and a triplet accompaniment in the middle line (see below), just like throughout the Moonlight Sonata movement.

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One of the right-hand melody and triplet accompaniment passages in the Pathétique Sonata 2nd movement

Despite all these similarities, the Pathétique movement is in a major key. However it has a longing, almost sorrowful feel, not too dissimilar from the Moonlight Sonata. Have a listen here: