Various methods of classifying piano books into levels exist.
The most well-known is the ten-step classification in the booklet Nieuwe leergang voor het piano-onderwijs (A new study path for teaching the piano), written by the piano pedagogue W. C. M. Kloppenburg.
One disadvantage with this classification is that ten steps is insufficient, especially in the lower levels (thus, for beginners). So, in Step I there are books which are intended for absolute beginners – but also books which are too difficult for them. And to be able to play the pieces in Steps III and IV requires an awful lot of practising. It’s not very motivational when someone becomes stuck in Steps III and IV year after year!
An increase in the number of steps would be handier – to 12, 25 or 20 levels, for example.
Another style of classification can be found on publisher Henle’s website. A lovely example is their edition of Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, BWV 846-869. Have a look at the page here.
Their classification is in nine Stufen (steps), one less than Kloppenburg. Apparently, this was problematic as Henle has provided intermediate levels, for example 3/4. In the above Bach example, you can see all these levels profiled. From Stufen 2 to 7 with intermediate levels such as 3/4, 4/5 and 5/6. Hmmm, clever, you think: you’re at level 3, level 4 is still too difficult, so first play the pieces classified in the intermediate level 3/4.
On closer inspection, you’ll see that there are nine ‘standard’ levels and eight intermediate levels. Or, if you like, simply a 17-level classification. Personally, I think a 17-level classification is a little bit odd. Why not go for a straight 15 or 20 levels?
Of course, it’s possible to create a classification with more than 20 levels, but then you run into practical difficulties. A classification with more than 20 levels will quickly become cluttered and awkward to use, for example when performing a search function.
‘Beginner – Elementary – Average – Advanced’ are other examples of classification but, generally speaking, these terms are a bit vague. When is someone ‘Advanced’ and what does ‘Elementary’ mean?
Piano book classification is not an exact science. There are so many different styles in music (Bach, Chopin, Debussy, jazz, pop…), and just as many problems regarding technique, that it’s impossible to make exact comparisons. Also, while one person might find Bach difficult and Debussy easy, it could be completely the opposite case for someone else.
I have produced a classification of 15 levels for the Piano Book Guide. To make a good classification, it’s not necessary to be able to play all the pieces well. A good classification requires the ability to classify in the first place, to create structure and maintain a clear overview. I have looked at all the sheet music and have created detailed schematics in order to make as best a classification as I can. I can honestly say that I am very happy with the result. Maybe the discipline and control inherent in my musical and scientific training have something to do with this feeling of satisfaction
No doubt my overview will receive some criticism, justified or otherwise! Constructive criticism is welcome, and I’ll use it to improve the Piano Book Guide.