The role the piano has played in popular music can’t be overstated. It crops up in most genres of music, and in many cases, such as those we’re about to explore here, it’s the main attraction.
So, here are some of the best piano songs ever released for you to marvel at the power of this fine instrument.
Changes – David Bowie
With the brilliant pianist Rick Wakeman on keys, Changes is another fine example of how piano played such an important role in popular music. Not only was Changes one of Bowie’s best compositions (from his equally stunning Hunky Dory LP), it’s a blooming brilliant bit of piano mastery with Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust band (the Spiders from Mars) supporting.
Piano Man – Billy Joel
Let’s start with one of the most famous piano songs of the lot, ‘Piano Man.’ It’s a brilliant song based on Billy Joel’s actual experiences as a bar pianist at The Executive Room in Los Angeles (the waitress referenced in the lyrics turned into his first wife).
Related: Find this song on our list of the best songs about escape.
Let It Be – The Beatles
Paul McCartney was inspired to write this song by his mother, who died when McCartney was at the tender age of 14. The song’s themes about moving forward in life and trying not to worry too much were a good fit for The Beatles’ final album of the same name. Of course, we could also have put Hey Jude here, but we can’t have the whole list being Beatles songs (can we?)!
Related: Check out these easy-to-sing-along songs.
All of Me – John Legend
This song shows that you learn to love all of the parts of your romantic partner when you truly care for them—both the good and the bad ones. It also talks about how the give-and-take of relationships can create a harmonious balance. The song was written for John Legend’s wife, Chrissy Teigen.
Related: Listen to more romantic date night songs.
Nightswimming – R.E.M.
You don’t normally associate indie stalwarts R.E.M. with piano music, but Nightswimming is the exception. This song is based on a real childhood memory of nighttime swimming. The one-and-a-half-minute fade-out within the song is also unique and helps it have an interesting sound.
Fallin’ – Alicia Keys
In this piece, Alicia Keys tells the audience about the feelings that occur when you are truly in love with someone as part of an up-and-down relationship. The song opens with a sample from Chopin; classical songs are fair game for artist reinterpretation, as no rights are tied to them.
Related: Here are some good love songs for him.
Sinnerman – Nina Simone
This is a traditional African-American spiritual song; Nina Simone’s ten-minute version has made numerous pop culture appearances and may reflect Simone’s own feelings about her sins or the sins of society. The track is based on the Book of Exodus.
Related: Listen to more hymns on our playlist of church songs.
Birdy – Skinny Love
This is an emotional piece where the narrator sings of a “skinny love” that doesn’t have much substance or security. Despite its shortcomings, it’s apparently not a relationship that’s easy to give up on. Bon Iver originally released the song, but Birdy found popularity with her version, which quickly became an international hit. It’s been popular in various singing competitions in English-speaking countries.
Related: Hear the original on our playlist of moving on music.
Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
As the title would suggest, this song is based on a novel of the same name and tells the same dark love story. It was Kate Bush’s first studio single and a number one hit in the UK, though many dismissed it as a novelty piece. Here’s a fun fact: Kate Bush and Wuthering Heights author Emily Bronte share the same birthday, exactly 140 years apart!
Related: Read our list of the best songs about books.
Marz – John Grant
Many of this song’s lyrics are based on a menu from a sweetshop in the state of Michigan that John Grant was familiar with. It seems to be a nostalgic song about wanting to revisit one’s past and youth in a place with fond childhood memories.
Your Song – Elton John
This ended up being Elton John’s first hit single. The song highlights the naivety of young yet passionate love. John’s frequent collaborator Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics age 17, but it is unclear if anyone inspired him to come up with the lyrics. John added the music in only twenty minutes.
Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) – Tom Waits
Here’s a track about traveling on the road and feeling wild and free while living out one’s dreams. The name “Tom Traubert” comes from a friend of Tom Waits, who died in prison. The song also includes parts of the Australian song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in its chorus.
Related: Headed out? Here are some songs about highways.
After the Gold Rush – Neil Young
While this song is environmentally conscious in parts, it also has more obscure themes of planetary travel and some complex lyrics that are hard to interpret. It’s also structured to take listeners through time. Many celebrated artists have covered the track, including Dave Matthews, Patti Smith, and Thom Yorke.
Related: Head over to our playlist of gold songs.
The Fall – Rhye
The protagonist here asks a lover to stay with him; she will leave soon, probably moving away for good and never seeing him again. At the very least, he would like her to let the moment last a little longer. It is one of two singles from Rhye’s 2013 album Woman.
One of These Things First – Nick Drake
This track illustrates the haunting feeling of realizing that you’ve gotten stuck in life and aren’t living up to your potential or your dreams. The narrator wants a better, bigger life but doesn’t know how to get there. The dreams and potential in this track specifically refer to committing to one romantic partner.
Related: This song is featured on the Garden State soundtrack.
Dinner At Eight – Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright sings of real-life issues with his father in this track; an argument with his father inspired the song. Wainwright has said that the song is so emotionally painful for him that he had to delay its release. It appears on the 2003 album Want One, which is Wainwright’s third studio album.
Children – Robert Miles
This unique instrumental piece is carried by its piano arrangement. However, its guitar sounds and live strings also give it an interesting sound. Italian DJ Robert Miles found international success with this track, charting and going platinum in various countries worldwide.
Related: Find more great childhood songs.
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
It’s hard to find a music lover who hasn’t heard this Queen classic; it’s one of the band’s most popular releases. While its themes have long puzzled listeners, there are elements of religion and self-discovery within its lyrics. However, the band has always been open to Queen fans interpreting the meaning in their own way.
Related: You can hear this song on our list of funny karaoke songs.
Imagine – John Lennon
It was always Paul McCartney on the keys in the days of the Beatles, so it came as somewhat of a surprise to see John Lennon take to the piano to deliver his peace anthem, Imagine. It’s another song that feels almost made for the piano (try playing it on the guitar, and you’ll see how strange it sounds).
Related: Enjoy the best songs about togetherness.
Clocks – Coldplay
Coldplay’s ‘Clocks’ is about a complicated romantic relationship. There are positive and negative feelings at play between the couple being discussed. Lead singer Chris Martin has also said that the song is about questioning oneself and one’s place in the world—whether the subject is a help or hindrance on Earth.
Related: Do you have the time for these songs about clocks?
Mad World – Gary Jules
Initially released by Tears for Fears in 1982, the Gary Jules version of ‘Mad World’ — released for the soundtrack album for the film Donnie Darko — is a haunting and melancholy piece.
Related: You may know this song from the Donnie Darko soundtrack.
Moonlight Sonata – Ludwig van Beethoven
This song was nicknamed after a Berlin critic described the classical instrumental piece. Its full title is ‘Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor.’ Its first movement appears improvised and has a unique sound that adds to its appeal. The song was published in 1802.
Pyramid Song – Radiohead
Radiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke based this track on the song ‘Freedom’ by Charles Mingus. It talks about the passage of time and the scientific and mystical sides of time as a factor of life. The song was used in a Public Service Announcement for forest fire prevention in the United States in 2003.
Uncertain Smile – The The
Here’s a track that anyone who has suffered from the pains of unrequited love can relate to. A different version was originally released in 1981 titled ‘Cold Spell Ahead;’ the 1982 version features different instrumentals and charted in the United Kingdom on the Singles Chart.
A Thousand Miles – Vanessa Carlton
Vanessa Carlton sings of a painful love loss on this track. The narrator would do anything to see this person again and she lives in a changed world now that she can’t. The song is featured as a capella in the movie Pitch Perfect 2 and plays a prominent role in the comedy film White Chicks.
Related: Is your lover far away? Here are some songs about long distance.
I’m Waiting for the Man – Velvet Underground
This song describes a gritty experience in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood through the eyes of a neutral observer. Five solo artists have covered the track since its original release in 1967; David Bowie and Lou Reed duetted the track for Bowie’s 50th birthday concert. Bowie’s solo version appears on the Almost Famous soundtrack.
Related: Pass some time with our waiting songs playlist.
The Entertainer – Scott Joplin
One of the most famous pieces of piano music, everyone knows The Entertainer even if they don’t know the name. This piano rag was first released in 1902 (yes, you read that right, 1902!) and spent most of the twentieth century cropping up in various places, such as the Oscar-winning movie The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. And if anyone tells you they haven’t tried playing it on the piano, they’re a liar!
Other notable piano songs and compositions:
- Hit the Road Jack – Ray Charles
- Great Balls of Fire – Jerry Lee Lewis
- Someone Like You – Adele
- Piano Concerto – Clara Schumann
- Piano Trio – Rebecca Clarke
- Für Elise – Ludwig van Beethoven
- Take Five – Dave Brubeck
- Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy
- Rhapsody in Blue – George Gershwin