Pianist Spotlight: How Ben Folds Brought the Piano Back to Pop

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Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Stevie Wonder—so many names top the list of influential piano players in music history. But for a while there, as dance, metal, and grunge took center stage, piano was relegated to the sidelines. One artist who changed that, however, was Ben Folds. When he hit the scene with his band Ben Folds Five in the mid-90s, a new musical sound emerged—pop heavily infused with piano.

Who is Ben Folds?

Ben Folds grew up in in North Carolina listening to piano greats like Elton John and Billy Joel, and re-creating what he heard on his own instrument. He was in a number of bands in high school and college, often as a percussionist. They saw some success, some failure—but Ben finally found his niche when he attended a music college as a percussionist, but spent his time working on piano instead. Eventually he made his way back to North Carolina, formed Ben Folds Five, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Music and Style of Ben Folds

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So what made Ben Folds’ music so different? Stylistically, Folds was touted as the MTV generation’s Billy Joel. Adding the extra dimension of piano–requiring talent and a strong knowledge of piano music theory–adds an interesting harmonic element to pop songs, something that worked in the band’s favor. Although the band had trouble breaking into mainstream radio, their quirky sound got its heydey when they released their biggest hit, “Brick”. The music world was ready for a new sound, and their piano-laced melodies caught on quickly. Their self-titled album received great reviews, and the band’s sound was instantly recognizable because of the piano. Listen to “Brick” here:

Other top hits were “Zak and Sara”, “Jackson Cannery”, “Song for the Dumped”, “Emaline”, “Army”, and “Underground”.

Where Will the Piano Take You?

Want to learn these hits, or compose your own music? With a little knowledge of piano music theory, you can improve your songwriting or even try your hand at jazz piano. Working with a private piano teacher is the best way to get started, to get a solid foundation of piano music theory, reading music, stylistic elements of different genres, and more.

When it comes to music, the sky’s the limit for those with drive and passion. Just when you think that every sound has been done, and there’s nothing new to write, a band or musician comes along with amazing creativity and innovation. Keep this in mind the next time you’re feeling stuck, and you might find yourself with renewed inspiration!

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Photo by BrianDooley.commerfam

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