10 most beautiful piano songs to play

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

It’s hard to say anything with certainty when it comes to beauty. Famously ‘in the eye of the beholder’, it can’t be seen or measured - only experienced. And even then, there’s no consensus on what it is or where it’s found.

However, these piano pieces just seem to have that special something. Many are loved by countless people around the world, listeners and performers alike who can’t resist coming back for more, time and time again.

Others are less well known, but boast many of the same characteristics. And others still were once thought beautiful by many, but have since fallen into obscurity.

In this article we’ll look at pieces that time and time and again seem to be thought of as some of the most beautiful piano songs. Hopefully by looking at them, we’ll be able to get a sense of what beauty really is. 
 

Most beautiful piano songs you need to know
 

  1. Piano Sonata No. 14 by Ludwig van Beethoven
  2. Polonaise in F minor by Maria Szymanowska
  3. ‘Comptine d'un autre été: L'après-midi’ by Yann Tiersen 
  4. Pièce romantique by Cécile Chaminade
  5. Aria from Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach
  6. ‘I Giorni’ by Ludovico Einaudi
  7. Cortège by Lili Boulanger
  8. Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2 by Frédéric Chopin
  9. Gymnopédies by Erik Satie
  10. ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ by Michael Nyman

1. Piano Sonata No. 14 by Ludwig van Beethoven

You might know it better by its nickname, ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Written by Beethoven in 1801, when he was nearing 30, its first movement is arguably the definitive piece of beautiful piano music. It’s one of the most popular pieces in the world, and it captivated audiences in the composer’s own lifetime, ranking among his most-played works.

The entire piece is bound by recurring triplets. These arpeggios hold the piece together like a soft thread, over which a fragile and solemn melody unfolds. The iconic opening features a musical device that seems to strike listeners so powerfully - shifting harmonies underneath a stable, repeating motif. It’s not the last time we’ll encounter it in this guide.

What makes this piece all the more extraordinary is how atypical it is of Beethoven’s compositional style. His music equates to passion, storm and drama. But this piece shows that he was just as capable of producing music of serenity. More than that, it’s like no other piece of music written by any other composer.

2. Polonaise in F minor by Maria Szymanowska

Maria Szymanowska: Poland’s first great woman composer and one of the finest virtuoso pianists of the 19th century. Her music is seen by many as an influential precursor to the music of her famous piano-playing compatriot, Frédéric Chopin. Arguably, you can hear her ability, impact and elegance at its best in the Polonaise in F minor

A polonaise is a dance strongly associated with Poland - for starters, its name equates to the French word for ‘Polish’. A sense of pulse often makes music accessible for listeners, who are more able to connect on a visceral level. This piece certainly has that, as well as a melody that seems to unwind effortlessly, gliding from one gesture to the next. 

It’s a wonderful miniature, and these features typify the immensely popular salon music of the time. Szymanowska is a composer whose music greatly influenced the tastes of high society, and compositions such as this one were loved by the figures that moved in those circles, winning great respect from composers like Luigi Cherubini and John Field.

3. ‘Comptine d'un autre été: L'après-midi’ by Yann Tiersen

Yann Tiersen exploded on to the music scene at the turn of the noughties with his hugely popular soundtrack to the French film, Amélie. It’s an incredible film and a fine score, but ‘Comptine d'un autre été: L'après-midi’ really stands out as arguably the most beautiful parts of both. 

It’s a perfect example of powerful simplicity. Tiersen employs a repeating chord scheme, shifting through E minor, G, B minor and D. Above it, unassuming melodic phrases that are enriched by the surrounding harmony. Energy builds with syncopated arpeggios, before the right-hand melody moves up an octave, attaining a more delicate sound.

The link above takes you to the quite difficult original version, but if you’re relatively new to the keyboard then you might prefer the slightly easier version. Absolute beginners should try out this much easier version.

4. Pièce romantique by Cécile Chaminade

Beauty and romance go hand-in-hand, so when a composer makes the latter a subject of a piece of music, it’s bound to end up being full of the former. Cécile Chaminade did just that with her composition Pièce romantique, which was partnered with a gavotte and published as her Op. 9 in 1880. 

The magic of Chaminade’s music resides in her being so imaginative with her writing, despite being restricted by the light-hearted tastes of the parlour music scene she wrote for. Notes alternate rapidly between the two hands, but the music never loses its gentility. Her gift for melody is also absolutely apparent in this delightful piece.

Echoing Szymanowska decades before, Chaminade’s music was adored in musical circles of the late 19th century, not least in her native Paris, a great centre of European music. She toured widely as a player, in France, England and the United States. Wherever she went, she was warmly received by admirers who had been deeply touched by her music.

5. Aria from Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s Goldberg Variations contains some of the most innovative, technically challenging piano music ever written, but the opening aria is another picture of simplicity. The aria is the theme that the following variations rework, the well from which all the work’s glorious music springs. Though it was first written for harpsichord, it sounds its best on piano.

The variations were composed in 1741, towards the end of Bach’s life. Most of his music from this period was complex, but he clearly hadn’t lost the ability to spin a beautiful tune. It floats along, as if on a cloud, soaring in the right-hand’s upper register. Meanwhile, the left hand moves in counterpoint underneath, supporting it every step of the way. 

One thing that so many of these compositions have in common is simplicity. Even the more energetic works in the list are not too adventurous harmonically. Of course the aria, which sounds almost like a lullaby, is marked by this exact quality too. And it’s all the more noticeable because it’s not what you’d normally expect from Bach’s music.

6. ‘I Giorni’ by Ludovico Einaudi

When it comes to beautiful piano music, there are few names that come to mind quicker than Ludovico Einaudi. His gifts are many, but above all he’s able to produce music of unmatched lyricism. Perhaps no song makes for a better example of this than ‘I Giorni’.

Originally recorded and released as the title track from his 2001 album, it’s gone on to be his signature piece. It features a bright and pensive melody whose movement is softly held and spurred by the chord progression. Although this article is all about piano music, this arrangement for piano and strings might unlock the music’s full potential. 

Emulating the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, we see a repeating motif held while harmonies shift around it. It’s difficult to say why it’s so effective. Perhaps it’s the blend of colouring an idea and letting it evolve, while the basic material remains the same - a balance of motion and security. A metaphor for life, maybe? Best not to get too deep into it.

7. Cortège by Lili Boulanger

So many of Lili Boulanger’s works could make this list. Her emotive music is characterised by a perfect balance of lyrical appeal and intense harmonic colour. Cortège is work that captures this artistic spirit of hers perfectly, while being a tremendously beautiful piece of writing.

Originally composed for violin and piano, this version is an arrangement for solo piano. It moves along swiftly, carried forwards by brisk and wide arpeggios in the left hand. These gestures support the most joyful of melodies, in which few listeners would fail to glimpse beauty. 

That colour mentioned above reveals itself particularly brilliantly at bar 19 in the Faber edition provided. Here the predominant B-major tonality surges into A major. It feels like a whole new space, but the transition is so smooth that it seems the most natural thing in the world. It’s often little, fleeting moments like this that make her music so special.

8. Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2 by Frédéric Chopin

Back to the salon. Here we find Chopin, whose solo piano music, unlike Symanowska’s, has remained widely idolised. Chopin followed in her footsteps when it came to genre, composing - etudes, preludesmazurkas and of course polonaises. However, he could be most associated with the nocturne, another favourite of his forebear.

Of Chopin’s nocturnes, Op. 9 No. 2 could be the pinnacle. Although complicated in many ways, it remains graceful. The repeating chordal phrase in the left hand is a great example of this. Its harmonies are dense, but the gesture has a lilting feel to it - bass notes alternate with higher chords that seem to lift themselves upwards. As if with a sigh.

Chopin definitely goes toe-to-toe with Einaudi for the mantle of beautiful piano music. Unfortunately for the Italian, Chopin has history on his side, having been popular and acclaimed for close to two centuries. Let’s see how things look in another 200 years.

9. Gymnopédies by Erik Satie

The three Gymnopédies are some of the most original and distinctive pieces of music ever written. If the name isn’t familiar, then the music should be. If the music isn’t familiar, hear it once and you won’t ever forget it.

We’ll look at the first of them, since it’s the most well known, and it tells you everything you need to know about the wonderful world of Erik Satie. Richly colourful chords are played by the left hand throughout, in combination with the most airy melody in the right. The pulse is steady, but there’s always a sense of being slightly off-balance.

That feeling might be the key to the piece, which seems to drift endlessly, never finding secure ground. If wistfulness could be captured in sound, surely it would reside in the music of Satie for evermore. Original and distinctive, yes, but it’s also - importantly - supremely beautiful.

10. ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ by Michael Nyman

In the early 1990s, lauded British composer Michael Nyman was invited to score Jane Campion’s successful period drama, The Piano. The music he wrote for the film is seen by many to be some of the most arresting and distinctive film music ever composed.

As the film’s lead character, Ada, is mute, Nyman’s score is compelled to take on more narrative responsibility than is typical of film music. The expressive power of ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ resounds within the quiet world that the film portrays, empowering the story and creating a truly unique cinematic experience.  

That said, it now enjoys a life far removed from the film itself, being a popular choice for concert performers and casual players alike. It’s energetic and tempestuous, but like so many songs we’ve explored in this list, it doesn’t overcomplicate, making it much easier for pianists and music-lovers to get at the emotion and beauty at its heart.

Your next steps for more beautiful songs


In truth, there’s beauty to be found in all music. It’s easy to perceive in works like this, so charged with feeling and lyricism. But sometimes you have to engage more actively as a player or listener to understand what music has to say, and many find that to be the best part. The harder you work to get at something, the more rewarding it is to find it.

So, having started your search for it here, why not continue it by stepping into a world of piano sheet music. There are countless titles there, each offering its own unique take on that elusive question: what is beauty?

Many find it in innovation, impact and influence - works of art that change the field of play forever. If that’s something that sounds right on to you, discover some of the best piano songs

Share this article

Related Articles

10 best jazz piano songs you need to know

10 best jazz piano songs you need to know

Make like Monk and the rest of these cats by jamming your way through the wonderful world of jazz piano.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 easy piano songs any beginner can learn

10 easy piano songs any beginner can learn

Starting out and looking for something to play? Find some great music here that's just right for beginners.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

Piano chords 101: complete beginner’s guide

Piano chords 101: complete beginner’s guide

Part three of the blog's series of 101 guides to piano music focuses on chords.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

Piano keys 101: complete beginner’s guide

Piano keys 101: complete beginner’s guide

The second 101 guide to piano music is all about getting to know the keys themselves.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

Piano notes 101: complete beginner’s guide

Piano notes 101: complete beginner’s guide

The blog kicks off its series of guides to piano music with this exploration of piano notes.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best blues piano songs you need to know

10 best blues piano songs you need to know

Learn the distinctive idioms of the blues with these ten classic tunes for piano.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

How to write piano sheet music and compose a song

How to write piano sheet music and compose a song

If you’re wondering whether to try your hand at writing sheet music, then hesitate no longer. Absolutely go for it. Writing sheet music for the piano is a lot easier than it may seem. It’s not something reserved for learned composers and experienced pianists. All that’s required is a bit of imagination...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

How to read piano sheet music: a beginner’s guide

How to read piano sheet music: a beginner’s guide

If you’re taking up the piano and want to learn to read sheet music for it, this article will tell you everything that you need to know. It offers a guide that will help you acquire the knowledge and skills to make your playing ambitions a reality...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 most beautiful piano songs to play

10 most beautiful piano songs to play

In this article we’ll look at pieces that time and time and again seem to be thought of as some of the most beautiful piano songs. Hopefully by looking at them, we’ll be able to get a sense of what beauty really is...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best country piano songs you need to know

10 best country piano songs you need to know

But make no mistake - country isn’t just for cowboys and Tennesseans. Country music has been a major player in the recording industry for the better part of a century. Below you’ll find a list of ten of the finest country songs of all time.

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best rock piano songs you need to know

10 best rock piano songs you need to know

The piano might not be most closely associated with this particular style of music, but the instrument has played no less vital a part in rock’s history and development. Here we’re looking at the pieces of music that best support that claim...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best classical piano songs you need to know

10 best classical piano songs you need to know

Classical music’s overflowing with exceptional piano music. Over the centuries composers have produced countless great, famous, original and influential works for this instrument. Picking ten of the best isn’t straightforward - there’s a lot of competition but we think we have found some that deserve a place on this list...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best piano pop songs you need to know

10 best piano pop songs you need to know

Many classics have been sung at the keys over the years and across the genre by countless iconic singers and players. The selection of music below tries to do right by this breadth and diversity. At the same time, it offers a body of work that’ll help you to be a better pianist, whatever kind of pop music you’re looking to engage with...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 best pianists: the greatest of all time

10 best pianists: the greatest of all time

If you play the piano, then you’re a member of a global community of tens of millions of people. In this article, we’re looking at some of these remarkable people...

Piano
By Ben Maloney

10 hardest piano pieces and songs of all time

10 hardest piano pieces and songs of all time

This is a run-down of some of the most difficult pieces for solo piano that have ever been composed. Ten works are explored on this list and every one demands full technical mastery of the keyboard. We’ve compiled as diverse a list as possible so that, if you’re bold enough to take them on, you should find at least one that works for you...

Piano
By Ben Maloney