10 best classical piano songs you need to know

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

Classical music’s overflowing with exceptional piano music. Over the centuries composers have produced countless great, famous, original and influential works for this instrument that’s positioned at the heart of the repertoire. 

Picking ten of the best isn’t straightforward - there’s a lot of competition. But few can argue, hopefully, that the classical pieces featuring on this list don’t deserve a place on any list of excellent piano music. 

Some of these are bona fide classics that you’ll either know or recognise. But fingers crossed that some will surprise you, as there’s nothing like new discoveries, and we’d be glad to give you the chance to hear some great music for the first time. And to see it - all of these works can be found in nkoda’s collection of classical piano sheet music.

If you’re looking for classical piano music at its finest, then search no further. 
 

Best classic piano pieces of all time
 

  1. The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach
  2. Piano Sonata No. 7 by Sergei Prokofiev
  3. Piano Concerto in A minor by Clara Schumann
  4. Solace by Scott Joplin
  5. Piano Concerto No. 4 by Heitor Villa-Lobos
  6. Vers la vie nouvelle by Nadia Boulanger
  7. Piano Concerto No. 21 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  8. Suite bergamasque by Claude Debussy
  9. Concerto for Two Pianos by Grażyna Bacewicz
  10. Piano Sonata No. 23 by Ludwig van Beethoven

1. The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach

There’s a subtle difference between repertoire and canon. The repertoire contains works that are performed, while the canon consists of works of historical importance. And The Well-Tempered Clavier is one that typifies the canon. It might not often be performed, but it’s stuffed with some of the most important music ever written.

In 1722, J. S. Bach composed 24 preludes and fugues for the keyboard, each in a different key. He compiled these short pieces into a larger work, entitled The Well-Tempered Clavier. Twenty years later, he wrote 24 more and compiled the second book. And it’s both those parts that make up the work known today by that name.

A milestone in music history, the work was the largest and most influential keyboard work of the Baroque era, and represents the peak of the period’s contrapuntal compositional style. It also helped to consolidate the tuning system that we use in music today - the only one that permits an instrument to be able to play in any key at any time. 

2. Piano Sonata No. 7 by Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev is one of the 20th century’s most important composers, and his body of work for the piano is one of the most significant in the repertoire. Standing out among this collection, the Piano Sonata No. 7 is seen as a benchmark in piano music of the era.

He composed the work at a pivotal moment in his country’s history. He wrote it in 1942, at the height of the Second World War during an intense and uncertain time for Russia in the conflict. Infused with the turmoil and anguish of Prokofiev’s experience, the sonata came to display powerful energy, expressiveness, and complexity. 

The great pianist Sviatoslav Richter premiered the work in Moscow in 1943. He described it as depicting a ‘tremendous struggle’, in which we ‘find the strength to affirm the irrepressible life-force’. Soon after the premiere, the Russian army won the gruelling six-month Battle of Stalingrad, to swing the war decisively in their favour. 

3. Piano Concerto in A minor by Clara Schumann 

At the age of only thirteen, Clara Wieck began her first and last piano concerto. It emerged complete in its final form just twelve days before her sixteenth birthday, and the work is arguably the best testament to her prodigious ability.

Even for a concerto, the work is virtuosic. Much of the material showcases both player and instrument, but the piece’s musical logic isn’t compromised. An especially notable passage is the duet for piano and solo cello dominating the second movement. It’s an innovative move that reveals the young Wieck’s capacity for originality and flair.

Already an internationally established pianist, she premiered the concerto herself in 1835, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. The recital, which was naturally a triumph, perfectly captures Schumann’s dual legacy as mesmerising concert pianist and prodigious composer. 

4. Solace by Scott Joplin

It’s hard to overestimate the influence of Scott Joplin’s piano music on 20th-century music. His ragtime works emerged at an important time in the melting pot of American culture. They became wildly popular and would go on to influence a range of genres. 

Although Solace has a foot in the world of rag, the other is placed firmly in the classical one. And that’s what makes the piece so interesting. Joplin combines the harmonic colour and rhythmic momentum of ragtime with the lyricism and layering of the Romantic piano. It’s a masterpiece of musical fusion.

The result is a piece of music that’s not only unlike any other work that Joplin wrote, but unlike any other in the piano repertoire. It might be well known that later genres such as jazz, blues and boogie woogie owe a huge debt to the composer, but his unique work in the realm of classical music deserves recognition too.  

5. Piano Concerto No. 4 by Heitor Villa-Lobos 

Although he had composed a handful of works for piano and orchestra, it wasn’t until Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos turned 58 that he decided to write a piano concerto proper. Fast-forward seven years and he was putting the finishing touches on his fourth.

Always reinventing himself musically, Villa-Lobos achieved with this work a balance between his characteristic creative style and traditional concerto-writing. So while there are formal innovations and Latin-American influences, they blend seamlessly with the more familiar compositional framework of the genre. 

The result is a concerto unlike any other - one of the most original in the repertoire and one of his great late works. Villa-Lobos himself conducted the premiere in 1953, and would compose one more piano concerto before his death in 1959.  

6. Vers la vie nouvelle by Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger is most often name-dropped in the context of teaching. Without her, the music of Aaron CoplandPhilip GlassDarius Milhaud and many others would probably sound quite different. But despite her massive influence on these composers, her own art remains overshadowed by her achievements as an educator. 

Vers la vie nouvelle, for solo piano, perfectly summarises the creative mentality that made such an impact on later classical music. The work is marked by a loose structure, rhythmic irregularity and multi-layered textures. Masterfully utilising the piano’s full potential, Boulanger writes much of the score across three staves, as opposed to the usual two. 

Still, the piece remains lyrical and moving, which probably has something to do with the context of the piece. It was composed in 1918, the same year that Boulanger’s sister Lili died at the age of 24. The title, which translates as ‘towards a new life’, reflects the composer’s coming to terms with this painful event in her life.     

7. Piano Concerto No. 21 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 

Mozart’s piano concertos are just about as close as you can get to the core of the repertoire. And none of the composer’s 23 efforts in the genre better exhibits his melodic gifts and Classical poise than No. 21 in C major - completed only four weeks after No. 20. Typical Mozart.

Even after all these years, the 1785 work is still a touchstone for piano concertos. It isn’t the most virtuosic. Nor is it the most groundbreaking. But it still displays, perhaps more clearly and elegantly than any other concerto, all the composition features that remain definitive of the form, even centuries on. 

The three-movement structure. The orchestra’s entry followed by the soloist’s. A rondo to wrap things up. Mozart set the creative bar in so many ways, but the mark he left on the piano concerto is a deep one - and No. 21 says it all. We wouldn’t have Beethoven. We wouldn’t have Brahms. Piano music wouldn’t be the same. 

8. Suite bergamasque by Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy began composing the Suite bergamasque in 1890, but didn’t publish it until 1905. He was reluctant to put his name to it because he simply felt that the work wasn’t good enough. Seeing the work, a publisher disagreed and tried to persuade him that it’d be a hit. Fortunately, Debussy came round.

The publisher couldn’t have known that the suite would have such an impact. It’s a piece whose profile is sustained by sheer popularity, and that popularity is fully concentrated on the famous third movement: ‘Clair de lune’. Treated as standalone, this miniature in D-flat major is now one of the most iconic and recognisable piano compositions in the world.

Although Debussy hated the term, the suite encapsulates his impressionistic sound world. Rich and sonorous harmonies, widely spaced textures, rhythmic freedom, parallel movement - all these features are typical of his compositional language. It’s yet another style that manages to balance innovation and accessibility. 

9. Concerto for Two Pianos by Grażyna Bacewicz 

Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz was actually another of Nadia Boulanger’s students. A violinist, she wrote seven outstanding violin concertos, but her late Concerto for Two Pianos of 1966 shows that she knew just as much about writing for the keyboard.

As you’d expect, a concerto for two pianos is usually a pretty intense work. Combine that with Bacewicz’s aptitude for pushing performers to their limits and you’ve got one of the century’s great piano compositions. Virtuosic, harmonically dense and sonically overpowering, it’s a tour de force of a piece. 

Between two soloists and an orchestra, there’s more scope for interaction between musicians, and Bazewicz fully exploits this. Musical material comes and goes in unpredictable rhythms and at inconsistent volumes - keeping her audience guessing from the first movement to the last. 

10. Piano Sonata No. 23 by Ludwig van Beethoven

A case could be made for a number of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas deserving a place here. They are totally integral to the piano repertoire, and make up one of the most important bodies of work for the keyboard. Known as the ‘Appassionata’, No. 23 Op. 57 represents this collective as well as any other.

The F-minor sonata was composed between 1804 and 1806, at a significant time in the composer’s life. Having reconciled with his worsening deafness a few years before, Beethoven’s work in this so-called ‘Heroic’ period exhibits a revolutionary departure from the Classical idioms that had shaped his writing up to that point.

This sonata is emblematic of this period. It’s sprawling, tumultuous, daring in structure and harmony - and it’s technically demanding. It reflects the composer’s break with Haydn and Mozart and pre-empts the work of Chopin and Liszt to come. The ‘Appassionata’ is a piano work that encapsulates Beethoven’s pivotal position in music history. 

Your next steps for classical piano music


It’s best to think of these works as a good place to start. Many of them are part of larger groups of compositions filled with other great piano pieces worth getting to know - like Villa-Lobos’ other concertos and Prokofiev’s sonatas. 

Find these works and all the other classical piano music that nkoda has to offer here. Johann Pachelbel and Sergei Rachmaninoff‘La campanella’ and ‘Für Elise’. From minuet and bagatelle to rhapsody and nocturne, you'll find it all on the app.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a world of sensational piano music out there that’s waiting to be discovered. So if you feel like looking beyond just classical, perhaps take a look at the easy piano songs

Whether you’re keen to play, learn about or listen to any of this repertoire, if you find yourself motivated to explore, that’s what’s most important. That’s what nkoda’s here for. Let the app accompany you on the next stage of your journey and discover piano sheet music now. 

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