It’s no secret that there’s an incredible amount of piano music in existence. Although the piano isn’t the oldest instrument in the world, it is one of the most versatile, and some of the most famous virtuosos in history have beyond mastered it.
Because of this, there is an almost infinite number of excellent piano pieces available to the masses, and it can be difficult to sort through them to find the true diamonds in the rough sometimes. That’s why, in this article, I’m going to provide you my personal list of the absolute best piano songs, which will hopefully spark some ideas for great songs you can learn how to play (and even sing).
River Flows in You by Yiruma
This is easily one of my favorite songs written for piano, and it’s extremely popular with pianists of all ages and levels. Written by contemporary composer Yiruma, this melodic piece is solely written for piano, and it doesn’t need anything else to shine. The beauty of this piece comes not only from the masterful composition and intentional dynamic markings, but also from the tender way in which it’s played.
Yiruma’s masterful control over the piano creates not only melodic sequences, but winding streams of music that truly flow. They’re trails that thrive above a chordal bass, complementary to each other and lines of music that work together to weave a beautiful, serene sound. It’s reminiscent of a scene in nature, both fast-paced and calm, flowing as it was designed without a care.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: In terms of difficulty, in all honesty, this song is deceptively simple. It sounds quite complicated just because the piece itself is absolutely beautiful, but I’d say it’s more than possible for an intermediate level pianist who practices regularly to play this quite nicely. I’d recommend you have a good grasp on playing with both hands before you attempt it, but I’d definitely give it a shot if you think you’re up to the challenge!
Nocturne by Chopin
Nocturne by Frederic Chopin is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard, and there’s a reason it’s one of Chopin’s greatest pieces. The Polish virtuoso was a Romantic composer of the 1800s and created several alluring piano pieces. Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 is characterized by a push and pull in the rhythm, akin to the tide on a beach—the tempo rushes in and fades out, just like the waves.
The left hand maintains a steady waltz-like pattern in triple meter while the right hand weaves an intricate, gentle melody. To me, it sounds like a lullaby and a bittersweet goodbye all at once.
Although triple meter isn’t as common as duple meter, it’s still something extremely important to know when learning piano. Most beginner’s songs are in 4/4, but 3/4 is common, as well.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: Don’t be fooled by the slow, melodic nature of this piece—it’s difficult to play. The most difficult part is the left hand. It may seem easy because it usually only uses two of three notes at a time, and they’re fairly sustained, but the problem comes when it calls for you to jump around the piano—you’re moving octaves at a time in just two beats, and that requires an intimate knowledge of the piano that a lot of novices and intermediate players just don’t have yet.
The Entertainer by Scott Joplin
The Entertainer by Scott Joplin is an upbeat ragtime piece rooted in syncopation and fast-paced leaps. Ragtime is a jaunty genre that thrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, and preceded jazz and the blues. This piece is best described as fun—it refuses to remain unmoving, constantly in motion around the piano and in the air, the sound never staying in rhythm or rhyme for too long before it shifts.
The best part about this song is that despite the intimidating sound and complicated syncopation, it’s actually not that difficult to learn. I’d recommend you don’t make it your first or second piece, but I believe an amateur who practices regularly could master this with no problem. I would definitely recommend having a great sense of rhythm before you attempt it, though.
- You Might Want to Read: How to Play Ragtime Piano
Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven
Similar to Nocturne, Ludwig von Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata embraces the darkness of music in the best way. In the first section (Adagio sostenuto), there is a perseverance to the sound as the rhythm rolls forward, spurred on by the roll of the bass and the repetitive pattern in the right hand.
The melody becomes chromatic after the first few measures (that is to say, it uses several notes that are not in the key) and shifts into a truly haunting, almost desperate, build, which once again softens to the original progression.
There is absolutely no doubt that Beethoven is a masterful composer—one of the best that ever lived—but his ability to manipulate dynamics and chords in this piece just sets it apart from the rest in my mind. It’s a piece that I could listen to for years, from the persistent, steady bass to the low, smooth melody.
The second section (Allegretto) is almost a complete turnaround and reminds me of the nights once may see in the streets of a busy town, with merrymaking and livelihood. Then, in the third section, Presto agitato, the darkness takes on an anger that I seldom see in music these days. It’s raw (open like a wound that has yet to heal) and just downright intense.
To me, it’s musical passion at its finest—and it forces the listener to feel it.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: Personally, I think the first movement is an excellent learning tool for beginning and intermediate pianists (for beginning pianists, though, I’d recommend a good bit of experience before trying this piece).
I think it’s great for beginners because the left hand is slow and sustained, which makes it very easy to focus on the triplets in the right hand (which repeat at least three times, usually). Both hands give you plenty of time to think about transitioning fingers. The only thing I think might be difficult is navigating playing with both hands and including the top melody. It’ll take some practice, but this would be a good challenge piece!
Faithfully by Journey
This is a personal addition, but I think the piano accompaniment for “Faithfully” by Journey is a wonderful composition. Although the chord progression is simple, it’s not something you hear very often. Whereas several pop songs use a very popular progression that goes I V vi IV (chords 1, 5, 6 minor, and 4), this one relies heavily on chords I and IV, alternating between the two with just a bit of syncopation.
Although the piano is more of less drowned out by the second verse beneath the other instrumentation, it’s one of my favorite piano parts to listen to.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: It’s not the easiest to play—much like Nocturne, it does require a good bit of jumping around—but for intermediate players, it might be a nice challenge, especially if you’re comfortable with syncopation.
A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton
This piano composition, accompaniment to Vanessa Carlton’s hit “A Thousand Miles,” uses a lot of dissonance and chords I don’t hear very often in popular music. It’s on this list because I truly enjoy listening to music that goes a direction I wasn’t expecting.
I’ve been around music for so long that the progressions are more or less fixed, so when I hear something that throws me for a loop, it’s usually added to my favorites pretty quickly. Carlton’s song uses not only an interesting chord progression, but a sweet, shimmering melody, one that ebbs and flows with the music.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: Although the piano doesn’t sound particularly difficult, I wouldn’t underestimate it. It’s not that it’s particularly hard, but it’s fast. One of the biggest things I struggled with when I was learning piano wasn’t hitting the right notes or playing things smoothly but transitioning between different hand positions and playing fast-paced scales. Agility is definitely a must to be able to play this song, no matter what level you are.
Let It Be by The Beatles
Let It Be is undoubtedly one of the most famous Beatles songs ever composed. It’s not just the unique chord progression that sets it up for success, but also the emotions with which the song is played and sung.
Contrary to several piano pieces, the piano makes up a small portion of this piece’s instrumentation. Mostly, everyone focuses on the vocalist and their lyrics, on the strong guitar and heavy drums, and the piano is more of a supporting instrument. That doesn’t mean, however, that the piano part is any less masterfully crafted.
It is admittedly very simple, but personally, I enjoy that the composers took the simplicity and changed it just enough to be different—but not so much as to make it unfamiliar. Characteristic of the title, the piano is soft and symmetric, and is constant underneath the flowing melody and other instrumentation. It’s a rock beneath a gentle sea, and the song itself is a ballad not of helplessness, but of peace with the loss of control we experience sometimes. It’s a life lesson and a beautiful piece of music all in one.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: This one would be pretty tricky for even an intermediate player. Truthfully, there are just a lot of notes here. The right hand uses several thick chords over a constantly moving bass in the left hand, and it’s going to be difficult to reconcile the two, especially playing them together and in tempo (which isn’t particularly slow).
I’d recommend hitting a very high intermediate level before trying this piece in earnest, but the bass in the left hand may be a good challenge for newer players.
Piano Man by Billy Joel
Although Piano Man has a compelling harmonica solo at the beginning to catch the listener’s attention, the piano accompaniment to the song is thoughtful, beautiful, and enjoyable. Strong hints of jazz at the beginning flow suddenly into a progression reminiscent of a waltz. It compels movement of some kind, especially when the voice builds above it and the harmonica.
Although the waltz-rhythm continues throughout the song, the chord sequence is unique, almost like a personal take on a simple progression. The repetitive nature of the piano also provides a support for the verses, which all tell stories of different people in the same bar—different lives converging on one point.
It’s a beautifully introspective piece that doesn’t shy away from the realities of the human condition, and the piano provides the perfect foundation for these concepts.
- Skill Level Needed to Play: In the interest of transparency, I think this piece, as gloriously beautiful as it is, would kill me if I tried to play it. It’s extremely difficult, both in agility demands, technique, chord structure, etc. Of all the pieces on this list, no matter how pretty it is, I think this one is best left to the advanced players!
This is a list of my favorites, but I also think these are some of the best piano songs out there. Of course, your favorites will depend on a few things—the style of music you like to listen to, the style you like to play, what you think sounds interesting or unique, or maybe all of the above.
There are no right or wrong answers for the music that inspires you or makes you happy—in fact, learning our favorite songs on the piano, no matter the genre, is a great motivational tool! No matter what you choose to learn and no matter which songs you prefer, any songs that bring you closer to mastering the piano are great choices.
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