For the first time since 2004, Rolling Stone magazine has released a new 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. A culmination of efforts by songwriters, artists, producers, industry professionals, journalists, and staff, it was pared down fro an initial 4000 songs. (You can find a breakdown of the voting process here.)
To celebrate the release of this list, we’ve compiled a list of songs that feature the piano. If you want to learn these songs, you can find most chord charts for free on Ultimate-Guitar.com. If you need a little more help, here are some free resources:
Without further ado, here are songs on the Rolling Stone list that feature the piano:
Let’s start with an e-organ classic: the folk ballad re-imagined by U.K. group The Animals, released two years after Bob Dylan’s version, about a girl trapped in a Southern brothel. The Animals changed the protagonist’s gender in their arrangement, and while Eric Burdon’s soaring vocals are the main star here, keyboardist and arranger Alan Price briefly steals the spotlight with an epic organ solo.
Alicia Keys is now a piano legend (I mean, it’s in her name!). This emotional ballad was inspired by the untimely death of 22-year-old R&B singer Aaliyah in 2001, and it’s passionately sung and dripping with loss. But it can also be interpreted as a statement against materialism. “The song idea came together right after Aaliyah passed away,” says Keys. “It was such a sad time and no one wanted to believe it. It just made everything crystal clear to me—what matters, and what doesn’t.”
Alicia Keys almost gave the song away to Christina Aguilera, but a rep convinced her to keep it.
“Sign of the Times” is Harry Styles’ first single since striking his own path from One Direction. Produced in three hours, it’s a lush power ballad in the style of Britpop classics. Simple, throbbing piano chords accompany Styles’ soaring, falsetto vocals. And while the music video really shows off the (former) teen heartthrob’s hair, Styles proves he’s more than, well, style.
18-year-old Fiona Apple wrote “Criminal” in all of 45 minutes. Rolling Stone describes the piano part as a “jagged piano bass line,” and this smoky track proves that pianos, too, can be aggressive. “Criminal” is Apple’s most successful single to date, peaking at #21 on the Billboard charts.
Written by country songwriting legends Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” took about six months to write. But the end result was so heartbreaking to sing, Bonnie Raitt recorded it in one take.
A slow-moving ballad with gentle riffs on piano and organ, Raitt’s lovesick anthem has become somewhat of a pop standard; it’s been covered by Adele, George Michael, Boyz II Men, and Bon Iver.
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” is a three-part, 7.5-minute ode to life in suburban Long Island. Of the song’s subject, Billy Joel says it’s about people “who peaked a little too early in life.” He was inspired by George Martin’s collage approach to the second side of Abbey Road. The song definitely has a strung-together feel, but moves quite smoothly between the nostalgic moods of each section.
Neil Young abandons his usual guitar-and-harmonica set-up for a piano ballad written in half an hour — with a touch of French horn. Inspired by a friend’s idea for a film about a natural disaster in California, its memorable, delicate vocals and sparse accompaniment evoke a strange feeling of nostalgia.
Fun fact: Young’s piano player, Nils Lofgren, did not know how to play piano when he recorded parts for Young. The accordion player was told “you’ll figure it out” and practiced “24/7” to get his parts tight.
The 60s was when organs and keyboards rocked as hard as guitars and drums. The Doors’ hit is a seven-minute masterpiece of sharp, shredding keyboards and Jim Morrison’s charismatic vocals, but the single version was cut to three minutes. According to Rolling Stone, this is the song that rocketed the Doors to celebrity status overnight.
A twinkling, confident piano opens this nine-and-a-half-minute epic with a memorable motif, but its a saxophone that takes the spotlight. Recording the sax solo involved a 16-hour, intense studio session where Springsteen and saxophonist Clarence Clemons mapped out the solo note for note. According to Rolling Stone, Springsteen called the end product Clemons’ “greatest recorded moment.” “Thunder Road,” another Springsteen track in the piano-driven Born to Run album, also makes an appearance on the Rolling Stone list at #111. Title track “Born to Run” crests the top 30 at #27.
Ray Charles, a Georgia native, recorded “Georgia on My Mind” because he kept singing it in his car and his driver suggested it. The original song was written in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell, both of whom were not from Georgia. (It’s speculated that Georgia is a woman, not the state, in the original.) Charles’ version got to the #1 slot of the Hot 100. His other hit, “What’d I Say” also makes the Rolling Stone list at #80.
A lush, gentle ballad, “Sail Away” is an exercise in irony. It’s all about the American Dream…but from the perspective of a slave trader. Muted horns give way to oceanic strings and then a shanty-like keyboard motif described as “austere.”
If this sounds like a controversial song, you’re not wrong; Randy Newman is no stranger to controversy. He once told NPR that “26,438,982” people have gotten angry with him.
The story of “Killing Me Softly” is a story of happy accidents. Songwriter Lori Lieberman originally heard a song in a club that she related to so much, she thought it was about her. She then wrote a poem about it, and this poem was transformed into a song by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel. Roberta Flack then heard the song as part of in-flight entertainment, and it is her version that cements “Killing Me Softly With His Song” as a classic.
If you think “A Whiter Shade of Pale” has a classical vibe to it, you’re on to something. It’s based on an organ theme from “Air on the G String” (Suite No. 3 in D Major) by J.S. Bach. (Here’s a demonstration of the song’s classical roots.) The track has since become a classic of its own, evoking longing and nostalgia. Interestingly, it is the only song recorded by Procol Harum’s original line-up, and it’s arguably their most successful.
Even a motif as done and dusted as the “Jingle Bells” theme can sound haunting and beautiful when you give it to Joni Mitchell. She originally joked about writing a song titled “Have Yourself a Morbid Little Christmas,” and the mood of this track fits. “River” is about grieving the end of a relationship in the cold of winter: “It’s a Christmas song for people who are lonely at Christmas,” mused Mitchell. (By the way, if you’re wondering, “Both Sides Now” is #225 on the list.)
An iconic chord riff opens up the wholesome classic that is “Lean on Me.” Bill Withers was an unusual musician in that he rejected the rock’n’roll lifestyle so prevalent in the ’70s: he kept his factory job making toilets for planes, dedicated a love song to his grandmother, and dressed plainly. “Lean on Me” was his only #1 track, but it’s the theme song for friendships everywhere.
There’s an urgency in Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.” The legendary singer-songwriter and activist wasn’t always fond of protest songs, but this all changed when a bombing killed four Black children in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Earlier that year, Medgar Evers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was also murdered. There’s not much joy in this track, but there is passion. “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam,” is Simone’s opening, “and I mean every word of it.”
A simple keyboard motif ushers in this hopeful, 80s anthem written by Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain. Inspired by his father, who told him “don’t stop believing” when he was a struggling musician, the song came to life when Cain and vocalist Steve Perry saw people walking under street lamps. Add some dazzling guitar licks, and “Don’t Stop Believin'” is now road trip classic.
For an interesting twist, listen to Lisa and Sam play this optimistic song in a minor key.
George Michael used “Freedom! ’90” to express all his frustrations with his career and the music industry. Michael had tired of the attention he received as a celebrity, so instead of appearing in the music video himself, he enlisted the greatest supermodels of the day (including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford) to lip-sync the words. The models were only given the lyrics a few days in advance and had to memorize them in a time crunch. Another fun fact: the track samples “Funky Drummer” (1970) by James Brown, earning it a dash of hip-hop.
“Let It Be” is now considered a signature song of the Beatles, but it wasn’t always this way. Inspired by his mother Mary Patricia McCartney, who died in 1956, John Lennon initially dismissed the song penned by Paul McCartney after seeing his mother in a dream. In the end, “Let It Be,” recorded the day after the group’s last live performance and released four months later, came to define the band.
McCartney’s masterpiece has reached legendary status, but as a composition, it’s quite simple. Consisting of only four basic chords arranged in the most popular progression of all time, “Let It Be” proves that genius does not always require virtuosity.
“I Want You Back” and “ABC” introduced the world to 11-year-old Michael Jackson…and music was never the same again. The funkiness of “I Want You Back” is courtesy of Sly Stone and James Brown. After peaking at #1 on the Billboard charts, this track has sustained popularity in the hip-hop world, sampled in Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Kriss Kross’ “Jump.”
“Hey Jude” topped the U.S. charts at #1 for nine weeks, making it the Beatles’ biggest single this side of the pond. Paul McCartney wrote the song for Julian, John Lennon and Cynthia’s son, after his parents’ divorce as a “chin up, mate.” (“Jude” was originally “Jule,” for Julian.) “Hey Jude” is a little more complex than “Let It Be,” but once you’re comfortable with a few F Major chords, you should breeze through the tutorial.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” held the #1 position in the U.S. for six weeks. An ode to friendship, it was written during a period when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were squabbling over everything, including who should perform vocals for the song. Simon derived the melody from a Bach chorale, and the phrase “bridge over troubled water” came from a Swan Silvertones song. Simon would later compensate Claude Jeter of the Silvertones $1,000.
Elton John makes the Rolling Stone list four times (“Bennie and the Jets” – #371, “Your Song” – #202, “Rocket Man” – #149, and “Tiny Dancer – #47), repping the piano in all its glory. The subject of “Tiny Dancer” was long assumed to be lyricist Bernie Taupin’s wife Maxine Feibelmann, but Taupin, a Brit, has revealed it was actually inspired by Californian women. 30 years after its initial release, “Tiny Dancer” enjoyed a resurgence in the film Almost Famous.
The awesome thing about “Tiny Dancer” (and all pop songs) is that you can play them as simply or as complicated as you like. Watch “Tiny Dancer” played at five levels here.
“Tutti Frutti” was an unexpected hit, a song that Little Richard had been singing for years but didn’t think to record. But producer Robert Blackwell asked a young songwriter named Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up the original lyrics (which were quite crude), and the rest of this 50s party song is history.
The shouted scatting (“a-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom”) is either the sound of Little Richard imitating a drum fill or how he talked to his boss in his old job as a dishwasher.
A haunting protest song with images of lynchings, “Strange Fruit” was originally written by a Jewish teacher in the Bronx. Billie Holiday had difficulty publishing the song. She was a Columbia Records artist, but her label refused to release it. So Holiday found another label, an independent one, who would be willing.
Sadly, “Strange Fruit” remains relevant nearly a century later. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the 2021 release of Billie Holiday biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday has renewed interest in the song and the injustice it continues to fight against.
One of the gentler songs on this list, “Imagine” is an anthemic song of hope that brings to mind peaceful sunny afternoons and John Lennon’s white piano. It’s not a difficult song, written in C Major with a simple yet iconic motif. In fact, we believe you can learn this song on the sixth day of learning piano. Imagine the possibilities — and try it out yourself!
180 vocal parts. Opera. Hard rock. Soulful ballad. Stadium rock anthem. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is all of these things, and then some. A triumph of both performance and production, Queen’s most legendary hit remains a favorite to music-lovers young and old. The biopic of the same name has reinvigorated interest in Freddie Mercury’s life, as well as granting Rami Malek an Oscar for playing him.
The beltable hit performed by Aretha Franklin isn’t exactly a piano-driven song, but we figure you may want to learn the #1 song on Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest songs list.
“Respect”‘s position on the list is significant for many reasons. For one, it means Rolling Stone is not ranking songs based on how much they’ve affected the magazine. (In contrast, their 2004 list put Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” at #1 and #2 was “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.)
Crucially, all top three spots in the publication’s 2021 greatest songs of all time list are occupied by Black artists. (#1 is Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” #2 is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and #3 is Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.) As anyone who has read the news in the past few years will observe, the times are a-changin’ and people, music-lovers included, want more diversity.
And perhaps we’re finally respecting that.
Cover photo (left to right): Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John — all artists represented on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time List. (Source: public domain, Wikimedia Commons).
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