Some of the best music ever written by human beings feature the piano as a centerpiece. While it’s hard to narrow down the best piano songs of all time, here are 50 hits from the Baroque era to the 21st century that confirm the piano is a powerhouse in music-making. Few instruments are as versatile, can handle so many genres, and can express as much emotion as the piano.
This list is organized in chronological order. We’ve included links to free tutorials and sheet music where available. Be sure to also check out the Songs library if you’re a Pianote+ Member. (Psst: Not a Member yet? Here’s a free trial!) We hope you enjoy listening to this list and learn some of these songs yourself!
Table of Contents:
Subscribe to The Note for exclusive interviews, fascinating articles, and inspiring lessons delivered straight to your inbox. Unsubscribe at any time.
The Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C Minor is a perfect example of Bach’s talent for weaving together a complex web of voices. It’s the second piece from his first The Well-Tempered Clavier volume, where the composer wrote preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys.
“Turkish March” is the third movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. Written in a modified rondo form, Mozart may have been inspired by the music of the Turkish Janissary bands.
Did you know Beethoven never named his Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight”? That nickname was coined by the critic Ludwig Rellstab, who thought the piece reminded him of the moonlight glancing off the waters of Lake Lucerne.
Who was Elise? Historians think it may have been Therese Malfatti, Elizabeth Röckel, or Juliane Katherine Elisabet “Elise” Barensfeld, but they’re not certain.
Chopin is the quintessential piano composer. He wrote some of the instrument’s most iconic pieces including the “Minute” Waltz and “Fantasie Impromptu.”
Made famous by Tom and Jerry, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is an example of the dizzying virtuosity and drama that was the world’s first rock star: Franz Liszt.
Tchaikovsky’s majestic first piano concerto is a melody many people will recognize. It was used in place of the Russian anthem during the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Did you know the famous “Chopsticks” song was written by a 16-year-old in the 19th century and originally meant to be played with a chopping motion? Today, the song is enjoyed by both total beginners and professionals like this Lang Lang/Jon Batiste collab!
This unassuming yet peaceful piece was composed by the eccentric Erik Satie. He only ate foods that were white, walked around with a hammer, and kept a very rigid schedule.
Rachmaninoff suffered a mental breakdown after his First Symphony’s poor reception. He came back with a vengeance, writing the moody, dramatic masterpiece that is Piano Concerto No. 2. Dedicated to the doctor who helped him recover, the concerto is today considered one of piano’s legendary works.
You probably know this as “the ice cream truck song.” Composer Scott Joplin is known today as the “King of Ragtime,” a piano-centric genre that was an ancestor to jazz. He wrote a groundbreaking opera, Treemonisha, that was sadly never fully performed during his lifetime.
A famous crowd favorite, “Clair de lune” is peaceful, ethereal, beautiful, and mesmerizing. Considered a rite of passage for many piano players, it’s not a simple piece (five flats!) but is a doable goal for those who have been playing for a few years.
“Rhapsody in Blue” is a perfect piece to bridge two eras. Written for solo piano and jazz band, it’s a hybrid mix of influences by American composer George Gershwin.
Fats Waller first rattled off “Ain’t Misbehavin'” on a Steinway grand piano in the Victor studio in 1929. It became one of the most recorded songs of the early 20th century and more than 300 artists would later cover it.
It’s a song many beginners plunk out on piano, sometimes as a duet! But “Heart and Soul” is actually a jazz standard with an entire middle section that most people leave out. The song is based on the I-vi-IV-V “doo-wop” progression.
Written by Billy Strayhorn, “Take the ‘A’ Train” is considered one of Duke Ellington’s signature songs. Another honorable mention is “In a Sentimental Mood,” a more relaxed tune by the jazz pianist and bandleader.
Erroll Garner wrote “Misty” in 1954 originally as an instrumental piece. Then Johnny Mathis fell in love with the tune and asked lyricist Johnny Burke to set lyrics to it. The song grew in popularity and was covered by several artists before its prominent feature in the film Play Misty For Me.
“Tutti Frutti” was originally a filler piece Little Richard would play between songs. Its original lyrics were incredibly graphic, so they had to be reworked. Little Richard is best known for his flamboyant performances and androgynous style, paving the way for future over-the-top music characters like Mick Jagger, Prince, and David Bowie.
Playful, beautiful, and youthful, “Waltz for Debby” is a favorite among jazz pianists. Debby refers to Bill Evans’ niece, Debby Evans. The song first appeared on Evans’ 1956 album New Jazz Conceptions, then again in the 1962 album Waltz for Debby. Sadly, the bassist in Evans’ trio, Scott LeFaro, passed away just 11 days after the album’s release.
“Take Five” is a track off Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, an album that celebrates odd time signatures. “Take Five” itself is a fun tune in 5/4. While the rhythm and six flats can be challenging to get used to, the chord progression behind “Take Five” is quite simple. Most of the song oscillates between an Ebm chord and a Bbm7 chord.
Written by Percy Hayfield, Ray Charles’ hit song is based on a simple descending progression called the Andalusian Cadence. The song occupied the No. 1 spot of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks and is today considered one of Ray Charles’ signature songs thanks to its catchy descending bass line and sing-along-able chorus.
Herbie Hancock penned his first single with Blue Note Records, “Watermelon Man,” when he was just 22 years old. While the song enjoyed a positive reception upon its release, it was Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s 1963 version that propelled the song into mainstream fame. Hancock himself would give the song another fresh spin on his seminal 1973 album Head Hunters.
“C-Jam Blues” was first written and performed in 1941 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but it’s one of Oscar Peterson’s most impressive and beloved performances. The song is a 12 bar blues in C major and the melody contains just two notes, G and C. It’s a very easy song to play, but in the hands of a master like Oscar Peterson, can be transformed into a jaw-dropping virtuosic performance.
Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in winter is a special experience, and the beloved film wouldn’t be complete without the music! Producer Lee Mendelson wrote the lyrics himself in about ten minutes on the back of an envelope.
Perhaps THE biggest song from the Beatles, “Let It Be” is timeless. It’s also magnificently simple, based on a standard I-V-vi-IV chord progression. Paul McCartney wrote the song right when the band was breaking up. He was inspired by a dream in which he was visited by his late mother, Mary Patricia McCartney, who told him that everything will turn out alright.
Elton John and his longtime music partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, wrote “Your Song” early in their careers when they were staying at Elton’s parents’ house. Bernie reportedly wrote the lyrics on a “particularly grubby piece of exercise paper” and Elton came up with the melody in 20 minutes.
Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics to “Tiny Dancer” as a dedication to his future wife Maxine Feibelman, a ballerina. The song wasn’t a big hit when it was first released, but it received a massive boost from its inclusion in the film Almost Famous.
Often sung as an anthem to peace, “Imagine” is one of the most influential songs of all time. Its origins are more humble: the words are partly inspired by a Christian prayer book John Lennon received from comedian Dick Gregory, as well as his wife Yoko Ono’s poem “Cloud Piece” from her 1964 book Grapefruit.
“Lean On Me” is another piano hit often sung together in times of crisis. In a 2006 interview with American Songwriter, Bill Withers describes the type of love that inspired him to write the song: “The consistent kind of love is that kind that will make you go over and wipe mucus and saliva off somebody’s face after they become brain-dead.”
No best piano songs list would be complete without “Piano Man”! The hit is based on Billy Joel’s experience as a 24-year-old lounge pianist in Los Angeles, and the characters are inspired by real patrons of the bar.
The opening measures of “Bohemian Rhapsody” are instantly recognizable. Freddie Mercury thought he had enough material for three songs, but decided to blend it all into one six-minute epic. The chorale section of the song contains 160 overdubs using 24-track analogue recording.
The anthemic, belt-able “Don’t Stop Believin'” was inspired by keyboardist Jonathan Cain’s father. He told his son to “don’t stop believin'” when Jonathan was considering giving up on music. It’s a good thing he didn’t—otherwise, we wouldn’t get one of the most popular rock songs of all time!
Axl Rose worked on “November Rain” for nearly a decade. The song is famous for its elaborate music video, which tells a story bookended by “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged.” The video’s budget of $1 million makes it one of the most expensive music videos ever made, and it became the most requested video on MTV.
The Academy Award-winning film Forrest Gump remains one of the most popular films of all time. Alan Silvestri is a composer whose credits include the Back to the Future series, Night at the Museum, and The Polar Express.
Often associated with animal cruelty ads designed to spur compassion, Sarah McLachlan actually wrote “Angel” after reading an article about Jonathan Melvoin in Rolling Stone. The Smashing Pumpkins keyboard player had died at age 34 from a heroin overdose and Sarah empathized with Jonathan’s loneliness and burnout from touring. Later, her work with the SPCA would raise millions of dollars.
One of the most popular songs to learn on the piano today, “River Flows In You” was released more than two decades ago in 2001. It became associated with Twilight, and then received another big boost in virality when the coronavirus pandemic inspired many homebound people to learn piano.
The haunting, piano-driven version of “Mad World” from Donnie Darko is the most well-known. But the original song, penned by Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears, was a lot more upbeat. Inspired by the synth sounds of Duran Duran, Orzabal wrote the song on acoustic guitar when he was 19 years old.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet first heard Yann Tiersen’s music when a production assistant put his CD on during a drive. The two met shortly after, and Tiersen then composed 19 pieces over two weeks for the film. The song’s title translates to “Rhyme From Another Summer: The Afternoon.”
When Spirited Away became the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, people noticed something else: the music. Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack has since become a favorite among anime fans and piano players alike for its nostalgic, wondrous character.
Coldplay delayed the release of their album A Rush of Blood to the Head in order to fit in “Clocks,” a song they had originally intended for their third album. The piano intro to “Clocks” resembles the cyclical passage of time and is an iconic mix of major and minor chords.
2002 was the year of Coldplay! “The Scientist” is another iconic, piano-driven song by the English band. Chris Martin says the song is “just about girls. It’s weird that whatever else is on your mind, whether it’s the downfall of global economics or terrible environmental troubles, the thing that always gets you most is when you fancy someone.”
Vanessa Carlton’s demo CD was about to be thrown out with the rest of the slush pile when her smash hit, then called “Interlude,” caught the ear of producer Ron Fair. The rest is history. The song went on to become a defining tune of the 2000s, appearing in White Chicks and becoming a road trip favorite everywhere.
Alicia Keys wrote “If I Ain’t Got You” pretty quickly, but producing it was more of a struggle. Inspired by the death of Aaliyah, Alicia Keys got the idea for the song while riding a plane herself and thinking about how nothing matters more than the people you love.
Einaudi’s pop-classical music is a favorite among piano players due to its accessibility and beauty. “Nuvole Bianche,” from the composer’s album Una Mattina, means “white clouds” and is based on a very simple vi-IV-I-V pop progression.
Maroon 5’s laidback “Sunday Morning” perfectly captures the lazy weekend with its jazzy ii-V-I progression. Written in C major, the Dm-G7-Cmaj7 chords are not difficult to play at all! You can even dress them up with extensions to elevate the song.
According to Sara Bareilles, “‘Gravity’ was born out of a high school relationship falling apart and me being a drama queen about it.” Like “Sunday Morning,” much of this song is built on the jazzy ii-V-I progression.
It’s an iconic opening sequence that gets people crying within the first ten minutes of the movie! Composer Michael Giacchino won an Academy Award for his work in the film. Imitating the ups and downs of marriage, the song begins upbeat and optimistic before devolving into more complex harmonies and variations.
“Someone Like You” is a classic song about finding out that the person you broke up with has moved on, but you haven’t, and you want to find someone just like them. Adele had assumed she’d get married to her ex; in reality, he was engaged to someone else a few months after their break-up.
Hans Zimmer is a film score powerhouse, and the theme from Interstellar is one of his most well-known works. The song came about when director Christopher Nolan handed Hans Zimmer a letter related to a movie he had in mind. He wouldn’t tell Hans what the movie was about, only to compose something inspired by the letter.
The rapid notes of the Succession theme instantly conjure up feelings of drama and intrigue. Britell blends classical melodies and hip-hop beats to create a memorable soundtrack that captures the character of the show.
As a Pianote+ Member, you’ll get access to our 10-step Method, song library, and growing community of piano players just like you. Plus: get coached by world-class pianists and learn whenever you want, wherever you want, and whatever you want.TRY PIANOTE FOR 7 DAYS
By signing up you’ll also receive our ongoing free lessons and special offers. Don’t worry, we value your privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time.