The piano is a beautiful instrument, capable of playing a wide array of sounds, from soft or staccato to broadly lyrical and even grandiose and rhapsodic. The ability of a composer to create such a huge range of emotions and portray a large variety of settings and ideas on the piano goes a long way in explaining why certain famous piano songs have stood the test of time and are still instantly recognizable to listeners. This also explains why these famous piano songs are often used to accompany scenes in movies, commercials, and television shows, or are often performed at recitals and weddings. These five pieces below are just some of the most beloved songs that form the soundtrack to our lives.
1. Ludwig van Beethoven, “Moonlight Sonata”
There is no classical music composer whose music better exemplifies emotion and heart than Beethoven. As one of the earliest great Romantic Era musicians, Beethoven bore his emotions openly, and his music is expressive, brooding, and full of feeling. And, as many know, his music is made even more amazing when we know that he lost his hearing in early adulthood and was completely deaf by the time he wrote many of his masterpieces! His expressive spirit is exemplified in the famous “Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, No. 2” (nicknamed the “Moonlight Sonata”). The first movement, marked Adagio sostenuto, is the most recognizable, with its smoothly moving triplet motive in the right hand and the heavy, pedantic melody in the low bass line. True to the adopted name of the piece, the tune offers a beautiful mental image of a melancholy moonlit night.
2. Claude Debussy, “Clair de lune”
French composer Debussy is the epitome of the Impressionist style of music. His pieces are soft, light, and dreamy, suggesting seascapes and tranquil natural settings. The famous “Clair de lune” (which translates to “light of the moon”) is actually the third movement from his larger piano composition “Suite bergamasque”. “Clair de lune” has been used in countless movies and television shows to depict a soft and dreamlike state and is loved by classical music fans for its gentle beauty. The pianist is able to use the higher end of the keyboard and use a certain lightness of the fingers to musically imitate twinkling and soft moonlight.
3. Frederic Chopin, “March Funèbre”
Whenever movies and television shows need music that instantly makes people think of morbid settings and ideas of death, they often turn to the second movement of Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2”, aptly marked “Marche Funèbre” (“funeral march”). This instantly recognizable melody is slow, heavy, and oppressive, mimicking the feeling of marching slowly through a street while carrying a casket.
4. Ludwig van Beethoven, “Für Elise”
Beethoven’s piano music is so universally well-known and beloved that he deserves a second mention in this list! The full name of this piece is “Bagatelle in A Minor” but most people will recognize it more under the name “Für Elise”. This music is famous both because of its beautiful lyrical melody and because it is a standard repertoire piece for young or beginning piano students who are starting to learn more substantial piano music. The right and left hands play constant eighth note lines that weave in and out of each other to create a beautiful and smooth texture.
5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Rondo alla turca”
Everybody knows the name Mozart and recognize him as one of the greatest composers and pianists in all of music history. However, not as many know that he was a child prodigy – composing music and touring all of Europe as a performer at the age of five! – and also quite an impish and mischievous jokester throughout his short life. He also lived during a time when Eastern influence, especially from Turkey, was incredibly trendy in Western Europe. All of these elements combine beautifully in the third movement of his “Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331”, marked Rondo all turca (“Rondo in the Turkish style”). The music is fast, energetic, playful, and rhythmic. The ornamentations that emphasize the half-step interval that is indicative of Eastern music and the quick flourishes mimic the flash of cymbals and bells.
These five famous piano songs are just the beginning when it comes to the wonderfully expansive world of gorgeous piano music that is out there just waiting for you to explore. The first step in learning how to play these beautiful pieces is signing up for private piano lessons. Your teacher will help guide you through the process of learning this music and developing the skills you need in order to perform these famous piano songs with mastery. Good luck!
Photo by Daniel Kruczynski