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Top 17 Best Piano Songs

It has been said many times, but there is something very special about the piano. What makes it all the more impressive is that it doesn’t rely on effects or pedals to give you the sound. The sound and the emotion are created by the composer, the pianist, and, of course, the instrument itself.

Furthermore, great piano music can touch us as very few other instrument-based music can. So, looking for the best piano songs is going to be an interesting journey.

In The Beginning

The piano we know today was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Italy around the year 1700. He had become irritated and disillusioned by the harpsichord, which at the time was the main keyboard instrument.

So, he set out to work out how to lose the “plucking system” of creating notes and replacing it with a “hammer system.” And fair play, he did a decent job, didn’t he? From that moment on, composers could write their music in different ways.

It came too late for Johann Sebastian Bach, but the piano became an option during the lifetime of Mozart. By the time we got to Beethoven, it was the standard keyboard for composition and performance.

The Connection

The piano can create a real connection, not only between the instrument and the listener but also with the performer. It seems to speak to us. And, the piano in the hands of a virtuoso is a “musical awakening” that maybe only the Violin and the Cello can match.

Most of the choices I have made will be considered Classical music. I suppose that was inevitable. But, the piano has been a force through the ages. Therefore, I chose a few pieces and songs that are a little more up-to-date to widen the spectrum.

Let’s get started. And, what better place to start than with a composer many believe was the greatest who ever lived?

Best Piano Songs

Top 17 Best Piano Songs

Für Elise by Ludwig Van Beethoven

One of the greatest and most loved piano works, and it was very nearly not heard at all. A researcher on the life of Beethoven, Ludwig Nohl, found the score by accident. It was first published forty years after his death in 1867.

An Established Standard Piece

Its light composition and simple melody mean that it has become a piece that those learning the instrument can master. It does not involve fast piano movements, but it is not an easy piece to play well.

The later movements become far quicker and more complex. At that point in the piece, it is best suited for experienced players. But, it is the opening that most play, and it is a joy to listen to.

Who Was It For?

Many piano pieces of the time were written either with someone in mind or for a specific person. The original title of “Bagatelle No.25 in A minor” offers no clues.

The English translation from the original German of Beethoven’s day, “Fur Elise,” means “For Elise.” It appears then the music is written for someone he knew as Elise. That might, of course, not be her real name. 

So who is this mysterious lady?

Some think it may be his name for a soprano he worked with, others that Elise was a former love of his in years gone by. I doubt we will ever know. But, whoever she is, her name is eternally known courtesy of the German master.

Should you want to learn how to play this masterpiece, then this might be a good place to start. The fact that it offers different ability levels means the book is suitable for everyone.

Clair De Lune by Claude Debussy

Another beautiful and well known piano song. Debussy’s work, which means “moonlight” in French, is the third section of a four-movement piece. The French composer began work on this in 1890; it was finally published 15 years later, in 1905.

The music was inspired by a poem by the French poet Paul Verlaine and is one of the earliest examples of his work. It’s another piece popular amongst students and those new to the piano.

There are some good examples of ways in which you can learn the piece, no matter what level your playing skills are at. For beginners and young players, check this out. And, for those with a little more experience who are at the elementary level, there is this.

Minute Waltz by Frederic Chopin

A piece by the Polish composer that he completed in 1847. It is dedicated to Countess Delfina Potocka, a socialite of the time who had once been his student. 

It creates a joyful mood with its uptempo, playful feeling. In some ways, representative of a dog chasing his tail in never-ending circles. Chopin sat and watched a dog do just that while he was writing the piece. He sometimes referred to it as the “Little Dog Waltz.”

A Short Piece

While the piece is not lengthy, it was never meant to be played in a ‘minute’ at all, despite its alternative name. Likely, it was once referred to as a “miniature waltz,” which has a very different meaning and interpretation.

When played at the correct speed, the piece should take about two minutes to play with its 140 measures. For those new to the piano who would like to study Chopin’s work, this is a good guide.

Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor

Edward Grieg was a composer and pianist from Norway whose work was greatly influenced by the myths and legends of his homeland. He is thought of as one of the great composers of the Romantic period and was a close friend of Franz Liszt.

His only finished piano concerto…

He composed it in 1868, and it has become one of his most loved works. It is, of course, one of the most easily recognized piano songs after it commences. 

The famous roll by the timpani followed by the dramatic piano introduction before settling into the main theme is well-known. And this has helped make it one of the best piano songs ever written.

It is in three movements, but it is the first that most will be very familiar with. Not a piece for the beginner; it will require some well-honed piano skills to play well.

​​Liebestraum No. 3 by Franz Liszt

Hungarian-born Liszt was renowned as a flamboyant, and at times, dazzling but controversial piano virtuoso. He tended to write his music in the same way. Therefore, some of the hardest and most challenging piano songs are written by him.

“Dreams of Love,” or “Liebestraum,” is a piece that includes three solo pieces for the piano. These pieces are all linked with a fast cadenza. Needless to say, as this is work from Liszt, a high level of competence and technical ability is required to play it.

Piano Sonata in B Minor by Franz Liszt

Let’s stay with Franz Liszt for his “Piano Sonata in B minor.” Liszt was Hungarian, as I said, born to a musician father who played several instruments. At age seven, he began playing and composing by the age of eight.

He started work on this piano sonata in 1849, but it wasn’t completed until 1853. It was published in 1854 and dedicated to Robert Schumann, the German composer. It is a thematic piece with four movements.

Controversy

Much of Liszt’s early work was controversial in the eyes of the music establishment. It was often aggressive and played at high speed, requiring great technical ability. This was not well-received in some quarters.

This piece was a good example of those opinions. It was criticized by some as being just “blind noise” and hard to listen to. It took nearly a hundred years for this work to gain popularity, get performed, and become accepted.

Being a controversial character, a film was made about his life. Being Hollywood, you need to take everything with a pinch of salt relative to its historical accuracy. But, it does give an insight into some of his greatest works.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff

From one piano virtuoso to another. Rachmaninoff is considered in the same way as Liszt. They are thought of as being two of the greatest piano soloists there have ever been.

It was composed in the early 1900s after he had suffered what might be considered a mild nervous breakdown. This was caused by a disastrous response to his First Symphony. He withdrew from writing and earned a living by conducting and giving lessons.

A Return

His “Piano Concerto No. 2” was an important piece for him and his return to composing. He succeeded in creating a highly-charged, complex, but very emotional piece. It established him as one of the most notable composers of his time.

Not in any way a work for the beginner or even an elementary player. It is a very challenging piece and will take a high level of technical ability to master it.

A Change Of Style

So, let’s move away from the Classical mold for a while and look at some great non-Classical piano songs.

Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin

Born in 1868, Scott Joplin became known as the “King of Ragtime.” Whilst we view Ragtime in a particular way, Joplin never did. He considered it a form of Classical music rather than just “bar-room honky tonk.”

It could just as easily fall into the category of Jazz in some respects. “Maple Leaf Rag” is probably the most famous piano piece that is considered Ragtime.

Whichever way you look at it, Ragtime was frantic and took extraordinary skill to master. And this applies particularly to the work undertaken by the left hand. A very challenging piece you can learn here. Take a deep breath first; it’s pretty frantic because it needs to be played Allegretto, at least.

Your Song by Elton John

Let’s dip our toes into the world of the Pop song for this next one. I could have picked any piece from hundreds, but this, to me, has always been special. 

The piano carries this song through its emotional lyrics and was one of Elton John’s greatest works. Impressive, when considering that it is one of the first pieces he wrote. He was young, and so are the lyrics as it traces the feelings generated by young love.

The song reached #7 in the UK and #8 in America. It was taken from his first album entitled Elton John. Fortunately, it is not a complex piece to play, but its simplicity is its strength.

Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens

This is probably Cat Stevens’s most famous track. It was taken from his album, Teaser and The Firecat. It was originally an English hymn based on a Scottish tune from the 1930s. However, because of the success of this recording, the song became forever linked with Stevens. It reached #9 in the UK and #6 in America. 

In a lovely melodic tune with meaningful words, Cat Stevens gives a simple but touching rendition of the song. However, the thing we always remember most is the piano. 

Uplifting piano…

This song is included here as an example of what I was saying earlier about a piano being able to lift the music. During the recording session, the piano was played by Rick Wakeman, keyboard player with the band, Yes. And, speaking of Rick Wakeman.

Catherine Howard by Rick Wakeman (from Henry the Eighth and His Six Wives)

This was the second solo album by Rick Wakeman after leaving Yes, it was released in 1973. The whole project attempted to give musical characters to the wives of the self-indulgent King.

It is one of those performances by a modern piano virtuoso that is just staggering in its technical ability. Of course, Rick Wakeman initially had his heart set on becoming a concert pianist. 

A Budding Concert Pianist

He studied at the Royal College of Music in London but found he was earning more than he would in his intended career by being a session musician. “Morning Has Broken” was just one example.

This piece mixes up his piano work with Moog’s and synthesizers to create a truly incredible sound. But, at the forefront is the man’s piano performance. Not many can compete with him today when he is in this mood.

Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel

This is a piece by the German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel was probably written in the late 1600s. It may have been written for the wedding of Johann Christoph Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s elder brother. Pachelbel was known to have been in attendance at the wedding. 

As was the custom of the time, friends and family were asked to provide music for such occasions. Johann Christoph was a pupil of Johann Pachelbel, so possibly he asked his tutor for a piece for him and his wife-to-be.

A Complex Work

A Canon can be a complex work with counterpoint layering and melody imitations all built within the theme. This creates a rich, full sound with the other melodies that are evident even when it is played as a solo piano piece. 

Its style was the forerunner of certain styles of music today with its eight-bar progression. That is a format that is often used in modern Rock and Pop music.

Out Of Fashion

As music can, it went out of fashion quite soon after it was written. It regained its presence in the 1960s with several recordings. The recording by the Jean-Francoise Paillard Orchestra perhaps being the most notable.

The style change by Jean-Francoise Paillard made this a popular piece and highly thought of. He slowed it down to create a much more Romantic feel to the music.

In Today’s Age

The piece has gained even more popularity, and it is often recorded by a variety of musicians. The latest recording we have came in 1982 when pianist George Winston included it on his album, December.

Piano Sonata No. 16 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart is recognized as one of the greatest piano composers of all time. And, despite dying very young at the age of just 36, he left us with an astounding amount of work. He produced Symphonies, Concertos, Operas, and, of course, Sonatas.

His “Piano Sonata No. 16” was listed as completed in 1788. It was a piece that Mozart described as being for beginners and takes about eleven minutes to play in its entirety. It is divided into three movements.

Mozart never saw this work published in his lifetime, as its first print wasn’t until 1805. A simplified version of this great piece is Piano Sonata Number 16 for Easy Piano.

Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie

Trois Gymnopédies was a series of three piano pieces written by Erik Satie. Satie was one of a group of musicians and writers in Paris in the early 1900s. They had become disillusioned with what was known as “Salon” music popular at the time. 

They wrote their music differently, to be listened to, not just for background music. Although his later compositions saw him leaning more towards Jazz, this has a classical feel to it and a formal structure.

Ambient Music

It was one of the first pieces that could be called “ambient” music. It is very dreamy and relaxed and doesn’t require playing at speed. However, to get the right results, it does take application and concentration.

It is a beautiful piece that is soft and gentle. There have been several alternative versions of the theme of the music produced. For example, “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie” by Jazz-Rock band Blood Sweat and Tears from their first album. And there is a beginner’s music version available.

Nocturne No. 2 in E flat Major by Chopin

A Nocturne is a musical description that is given to a piece that is about sleep and/or nighttime. This particular Nocturne formed part of a series of three that Chopin composed for his friend Camille Pleyel.

Pleyel managed a concert hall, the Salle Pleyel, where Chopin gave his first and coincidentally last ever performance.

Some Of His Finest Work

This set of Nocturnes is thought of as some of Chopin’s finest works. It is written in a waltz-like tempo and is composed in a rounded binary format. This format entails writing two sections that are related to each other and repeated.

“Nocturne No. 2” is a piano piece that is performed everywhere you find a piano. It should be an important part of the development of any aspiring player. One of the best piano songs by one of the greatest composers.

Piano Concerto No.5 ”Emperor” by Ludwig Van Beethoven

Now we move on to one of Beethoven’s piano concertos with orchestra. He was working for Archduke Rudolf in Vienna when he composed the piece. It was dedicated to the Archduke, who was also his pupil for a time.

It premiered in 1811 in Leipzig, where Beethoven, usually the soloist on his piano pieces, declined to play. His hearing was deteriorating by this time, and he asked Friedrich Schneider to play in his place.

The Emperor?

It has a definite military symbolism in the way it is constructed. Although, it is unlikely to have been written about Napoleon, as Beethoven was known to despise his conquests. But, it has no known association with any military leader.

The “Emperor” title was probably added at a later time, possibly by the English publisher Johann Cramer. Frans Liszt included “Piano Concerto No. 5” in his concert repertoire. It has a claim by music aficionados to be considered one of the finest piano and orchestra pieces ever written.

Should you wish to study the piece, the solo piano part is included here.

Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig Van Beethoven

So, let us go back to the German master to finish this look at the best piano songs. This is probably one of Beethoven’s most famous pieces. But, more than that, it is one of the most famous piano pieces.

It is admired for many reasons, but mainly for its mysterious and beautiful first movement. It is relaxed yet dramatic all at once with its gentle arpeggiated style.

Three Movements

It is a work that has three movements that encompass so many things. The First movement, the one most will know and recognize, is dreamy and relaxing. The second movement builds the tension slowly and becomes lively and more dramatic in its feel.

The third movement can only be described as epic. And not only in how it sounds. The technical ability required to play it is at the highest level, and the drama in the music is exceptional. It is all at once tempestuous but beautifully constructed.

This piece often reminds me of a storm that is slowly brewing in the first movement. It increases momentum as the storm clouds build. And then, in the third movement, unleashes itself upon you.

Dedicated To A Pupil…

It was completed in 1801 and premiered in 1802. Beethoven himself played it at the premiere. His hearing, whilst deteriorating, was still just about okay to play the piece.

It was dedicated to the 16-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, who was his student for a time. The original title was “Piano Sonata No.14 in C# Minor”. 

The appellation “Moonlight” was added in the 1830s by a German poet, Ludwig Rellstab. He thought the first movement reminded him of sitting on a boat gently floating on a Swiss lake in the evening.

A Break With Conventions

Like other pieces by Beethoven, he broke with what was considered composing traditions with this piece. Its first audience was quite shocked, and some thought it outrageous. To others, though, it was a masterpiece. It still is. 

The magic of the great man was summed up in what may have been the greatest of any piano piece. Here is the complete sheet music, though the first movement might be most appropriate unless you are practicing for a place at the Royal Academy or Royal College of Music.

Interested in Classical Pianists and Music?

If so, take a look at our detailed articles on Amazing Facts About MozartAmazing Facts About JS BachWhat Instruments Did Beethoven PlayThe Baroque Music Period, and The Romantic Period of Music for more fascinating history and information.

And, if you’re interested in playing the piano, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Portable Keyboard Pianos, the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano, the Best Digital Pianos For Beginners, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, and the Best 88-Key Keyboards you can buy in 2022.

Best Piano Songs – Final Thoughts

The piano in the hands of composers like we have seen here can bring the most amazing results. Music that inspires and encourages. And, as I said in the beginning, music that touches us like very few other things can.

That’s what all of these pieces can do in their own way. They differ in mood and technical ability, but they are some of the greatest pieces of piano music ever written.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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