Some classical compositions are so famous that everyone knows them, even if they don’t realize it. That’s because classical music has long been used in commercials, cartoons, TV shows, films and political rallies for as long as these have been in existence.
Moreover, it’s not unusual for 20th and 21st century musicians to use classical works as a basis for a modern song.
Still, classical compositions remain the standards that most piano students learn. This is true even from the earliest days of their lessons, with the pieces becoming longer and more complex as they progress.
Although this must be a rather subjective list, we’ve put together a collection of seven indispensable pieces to learn on the piano. Some are appropriate for relatively new musicians while others are challenges for intermediate and advanced pianists to tackle.
Either way, it’s virtually impossible to not recognize these famous and well-loved compositions.
1. Au Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy
Even people who would say they know nothing of classical music are familiar with this ethereal piece. Translating to “moonlight” in English, Au Clair de Lune was originally composed for advanced and professional musicians. However, several simplified arrangements for beginner and intermediate pianists have been published.
Debussy composed the romantic piece in 1890 when he was only 28 years old. Still, the music wasn’t published until a full 15 years later.
This piece itself is actually just one part of a larger work that’s known as Suite Bergamasque. To write Clair de Lune, Debussy took inspiration from French poet Paul Verlaine’s work of the same name, which describes the soul as a place that’s filled with music played in a minor key.
While the middle section of Clair de Lune can be quite challenging, the beginning typically is much easier and presents a nice challenge for beginning pianists who are looking for a soft, ethereal piece.
2. Für Elise by Ludwig van Beethoven
One of the most instantly recognizable compositions for the piano, Für Elise remains somewhat mysterious and enigmatic.
The formal name of the piece is Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor. However, you’ll rarely hear it referred to as such. Instead it is known by the German name Für Elise, which in English translates to “For Elise.”
That name is something of a misnomer that arose some four decades after Beethoven’s death. The Batagelle wasn’t published until 1867 when it was discovered by Ludwig Nohl, who was an avid Beethoven researcher.
Nohl said that the piece was inscribed “For Elise,” but later researchers believe that Nohl misinterpreted the writing. They argue that “Elise” was actually “Therese,” which referred to Therese Malfatti.
It seems that Beethoven proposed to Therese in 1810, which was the same year that the piece was composed, and the sheet music was found in her belongings.
Still, other researchers argue that “Elise” was actually soprano Elisabeth Röckel with whom Beethoven was supposedly in love.
It’s likely we’ll never know for whom this famous piece was composed, but it remains one of the best classical pieces for the piano.
3. Turkish March by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Light, fast and playful, this is a particularly impressive piece when played on the piano. It is part of the three-movement Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, and the piece arguably is the most famous of the movements.
Most researchers believe that Mozart composed the piece while in Austria during 1783, though some may argue for 1778. Regardless of the precise year, what is known is that Mozart was inspired by the Turkish Janissary bands that were very popular during the period. These Ottoman military bands had a distinctive sound that’s fun to emulate on the piano.
These bands played instruments like:
- A timpani called a kos
- Cymbals called the zil
- A kettledrum known as nakare
- A bass drum called a davul
Because it is relatively fast and complex, the Turkish March is most frequently learned by musicians who are at least the intermediate level. Conquering this piece is definitely an accomplishment.
4. Liebestraum No. 3 by Franz Liszt
Translating to “Dreams of Love,” this is a gorgeous piece that many intermediate and advanced pianists take on. This composition actually is the third of a set off three pieces that were published by Liszt in 1850. Each piece had a different theme, with the first being saintly love, the second being romantic love and the third being a mature and unconditional love. It is this third piece that is so well-regarded today.
Most musicians regard the third piece as being divided into three sections with a spirited, fast cadenza between each section. Dexterous finger work is needed, and most musicians who take on this piece have acquired great technical ability.
That said, it may be possible to find simpler arrangements for less experienced piano students.
5. Minuet in G Major by Christian Petzold
Long attributed in error to Johann Sebastian Bach, the Minuet in G Major remains a simple, unaffected air that is perfect for beginning pianists. One of the things that makes this piece so appealing to beginners is that it has tons of repetition. This means that it’s much easier to remember and gives students a true feeling of accomplishment.
Plus, this piece relies on five-note scales for the right hand for its entirety. This makes it really intuitive. Playing it just feels natural.
Simple, beautiful and full of predictable patterns, this is a wonderful classical piece to learn on the piano.
6. Ode to Joy by Ludwig van Beethoven
Here’s another composition by Beethoven, which also is one that most people will instantly recognize because it’s been so heavily used in pop culture.
The Ode to Joy is part of the composer’s Ninth Symphony, which also proved to be his last. It’s actually a piece that’s composed for a chorus, but it can be quite effective with a solo piano too. The words were taken from a poem by Freidrich Schiller that was written during the early stages of the French Revolution in 1785. Beethoven was extremely moved by the poem and determined to set the words to music someday.
when played by a full orchestra, Ode to Joy features these instruments:
- Bass drum and more
Although the full-blow piano piece is quite complex, many simpler arrangements have been published, which means that Ode to Joy is accessible even to beginning pianists.
A simple chord structure including just three types of chords accompanies the main theme. Relatively new piano students will probably be excited by the opportunity to play such a well-known and recognizable song.
7. Gymnopedie No. 1 by Eric Satie
Peaceful, plaintive and soft, this reflective piece has made its way into popular culture like many of the other compositions on this list.
Gymnopedie No. 1 is the first of three Gymnopedies that Satie composed. He published the first and third compositions in 1888, but the third one was not ready until 1895. All three pieces are written in three-quarter time and share common themes.
At approximately three minutes long, Gymnopedie No. 1 is perfect for beginning piano students. Plus, the left hand repetitively uses the same chord pattern through much of the piece. There are even some dissonances against the harmony scattered throughout, allowing a nice opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of sounds.
Prodigies Music Makes Classical Music Accessible
Have you always been curious about the patterns in classical music? Maybe you’ve always wanted to know just what scales and arpeggios are. Or, perhaps you’re looking for a fun and engaging way to introduce your children to classical music or just music in general.
If so, then you’ve come to the right place. Prodigies Music has lessons that are appropriate for children who are as young as one year old. Follow along with these progressive lessons, repeating favorites as often as you like. Many parents enjoy participating in the lessons with their children, and they love getting an insight into music at the same time.
Prodigies Music believes that it’s possible to bring families together through the study of music. Whether your family’s taste is for classical, jazz, rock or something else entirely, the lessons presented here will provide a broad foundation that makes the world of music more accessible than ever.