“Hey, don’t you play piano? Play something for us!”
Even for longtime pianists, these two sentences can be frightening! Everyone wants to play something impressive and exciting to show off all of their talent, but a lot of pianists—even those who have been studying for years—don’t know what to play when they get the chance! If you’re not careful, you might find yourself in a similar situation thinking, “What should I play? I don’t remember how to play anything!”
It’s important for all musicians to have at least a few pieces in their metaphorical “toolbox” at all times. As you learn more, you should fill your mental toolbox with pieces that you know well, so that you can perform at any opportunity! The pieces in your toolbox don’t have to be extremely difficult; they should be easy to remember and fun to play and listen to.
This is a collection of ten pieces that I teach to beginner students in order to boost their confidence and give them something to play for others when they get the opportunity. They are good pieces to keep in your mental toolbox because they are easy to learn and remember, but they sound difficult, impressive, and beautiful to others. I call them the ten easiest (hardest) piano pieces. Learn to play some of these pieces confidently and consistently to add them to your toolbox!
1. John Lennon: "Imagine"
“Imagine” is John Lennon’s most famous song from his solo career after The Beatles broke up. It is a good piece for a beginner to tackle in order to gain confidence in his or her playing. In order to learn this piece, you should familiarize yourself with chord symbols and lead sheets. Memorize the chord progression instead of individual notes or shapes. This will allow you to play along with the song in any number of ways.
Here is an example: The verse is the chords C and F. Most first time students will learn the chords in root position with both hands, and then learn to play the F chord in second inversion, with the C on the bottom. This voicing is how the chord is played in the song. Try to play along with the verse using these two chords—each chord gets 4 counts. As you feel more comfortable, try out different chord inversions, sing along to the song and play the vocal melody in the right hand!
2. Ludwig Van Beethoven: “Für Elise”
“Für Elise” (For Elise) is one of the most famous piano pieces ever written. Beethoven wrote the piece in 1810 when he was nearly completely deaf, although it was not published until after his death. Most people have only heard the famous short introduction to the piece, which is only about a minute long. The next sections are actually more difficult, but you don’t need to learn those to impress your audience!
Arpeggiated power chords (root and fifth only) and octave sweeps lend this piece a particular gravitas, but they are deceptively easy to play. The left hand and right hand parts are almost entirely separate, so you are not playing two different ideas at the same time. Instead, each arpeggio or melodic line is broken up between the hands. There are only 4 patterns in the left hand, and the final four octave sweep is comprised entirely of the note E!
There are only a few chords and notes to remember in order to play the famous section, so it is easy to remember. Start by learning each hand separately—first the right hand, and then the left hand. Once you know both hands, slowly play them both together. They only overlap one note at a time, so they should come together easily!
The identity of Elise is unknown, but you sure get a lot of people asking to hear her piece!
3. Frederic Chopin: Etude in E, “Tristesse”
This piece is said to have been Chopin’s favorite piece of music he ever composed. The name “Tristesse” (“Sadness” in English) was given to the piece after Chopin’s death. Like “Für Elise,” only the main first section of the piece that is about a minute long is famous, and the rest of the piece—despite being more difficult—is less well known. Therefore, you only need to learn the first section!
The main first section is constructed of low, arpeggiated block chords with a simple melody hovering above that invokes a nostalgic longing for a love that is long past. The arpeggios give the illusion that a lot of things are happening at the same time. The rhythm of the arpeggios stays the same throughout, so all you have to worry about are the notes. Most of the time there are only two repeating groups of notes.
It helps to be familiar with your E major scale and chords before you try to tackle this piece. As you learn the parts, take note of which chords your hands are playing. It is easier to remember arpeggios if you remember the chord as a whole and not just the individual notes. Finally, try practicing the piece without the main melody line and only with the arpeggiated notes.
4. Johann Sebastian Bach: Prelude in C
Prelude in C is the first piece in a book of preludes and fugues in all 12 keys called the Well Tempered Clavier (WTC). Be sure not to confuse it with the first prelude in the WTC Book II! This particular Prelude in C is one of JS Bach’s most famous pieces.
There are a lot of notes and chords in this piece, and they go by very quickly! It also uses a lot of the piano’s range. Don’t be concerned though, it is much easier to play than it looks. Except for the last couple measures, there is only one note being pressed at a time in this piece. The rhythm also stays the same throughout the piece. This means that the only thing you have to worry about are the notes and the chords.
Don’t learn one note at a time! Prelude in C is a study in chord progressions and patterns. Each measure is a new chord. Often times there are only a couple of notes that change between measures. Pay close attention to what chord you are playing (it helps to know a little bit of theory, here. Be sure to learn about chord inversions and 7th chords while attempting this piece. Ask your teacher for guidance!)
5. Michael Nyman: “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”
“The Heart Asks Pleasure First” is a piece of music from the movie The Piano.
This is one of the first piano pieces I ever learned, and it made me feel like a master pianist, even though I had a long way to go! It is a very beautiful and impressive piece, but there are a few “secrets” that make playing it much easier than it sounds.
The main “secret” is that the piece is composed of repeated 6-note ostinatos in each hand. An ostinato is a repeating pattern of notes upon which the rest of a piece is built. There are only a few shapes in the left hand—power chords (root and fifth only) and triads with inversions. The key centers in this piece are A minor and C major, so all of the notes are white notes. Because of this, all of the diatonic chords and power chords are the same shape. Work on being able to play each power chord in the piece by using only the bottom or top note for visual reference instead of finding all three notes each time. Get used to playing that shape with your left hand—it is extremely common and useful for playing solo piano. To work on your muscle memory, see if you can find the shapes blindfolded!
To tackle this piece, practice each hand separately. Once you are able to repeat the ostinato pattern with both hands separately, putting them together will be no trouble at all.
6. Yann Tiersen: “Comptine d'un autre été”
“Comptine d’un autre éte” is a piece of music from the French movie Amélie. It has a four chord arpeggiated ostinato in the left hand, and a melody in the right hand. It is in the key of E minor, so it is almost all white notes. The left hand is the same throughout the entire piece, so begin by practicing the left hand part on its own. Once you can reliably play the left hand ostinato, try improvising short, simple melodies in E minor with your right hand using quarter notes and eighth notes. The goal is to be able to play something with your right hand while the ostinato continues in the left hand with no rhythmic hiccups. Once you are able to do this, try to learn the right hand melody on its own, and then put both hands together slowly.
7. Yiruma: “River Flows In You”
“River Flows In You” is very similar to “Comptine d'un autre été.” There is a repeating four chord ostinato progression with a melody in the right hand, and only a few black notes. Structure your practice the same way: first master the left hand ostinato, then improvise simple melodies above it. Finally, learn the right hand part and put both hands together.
8. Claude Debussy: “Claire De Lune”
“Claire De Lune” is one of Debussy’s most famous pieces. His impressionist melodies and harmonies were inspired by Javanese Gamelan music, which does not use the 12 notes of the piano. The middle section of “Claire De Lune” is difficult, but the famous introduction to the piece is a good challenge for beginner-intermediate pianists.
Debussy imitated the sounds of Gamelan by using the pentatonic collection. Pentatonic refers to a scale or collection of five notes. In the major scale, the pentatonic scale degrees are 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. In the case of the introduction to “Claire De Lune,” which is in F minor/Db major, the pentatonic scale is Db, Eb, F, Ab, Bb. A good exercise to prepare for playing “Claire De Lune
is to play all of the diatonic triads in Db major up and down like a scale, (Db, Ebm, Fm, etc.). This will help you to become familiar with the notes and chords in Db. Next, practice playing a Db pentatonic scale and a Gb pentatonic scale.
There are a lot of chords in this piece, which can be daunting. As you work through it try to mentally relate them back to the aforementioned diatonic and pentatonic collections. In general, this should help you to better understand the piece and remember how to play it.
9. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: “Solfeggietto”
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons. Although Johann Sebastian Bach is the most well known Bach, the Bach family had many famous musicians for generations, even predating Johann Sebastian.
“Solfeggietto” is a very impressive piece to play quickly because the hands are moving all around the piano and there are a lot of notes, but it is easier than it looks. The hands do not play at the same time, and the same patterns are repeated up and down the piano. Before playing this piece, learn your C minor scale, chord inversions, and arpeggios. The piece is just constructed from arpeggios and scales!
Learn the piece in chunks. Try to master one pattern or section before moving on to the next. Once you are familiar with a pattern, move on to the next one. Finally, try to glue each part together by playing them sequentially. Practice slowly! It can be tempting to try to rush through playing a section once you are comfortable with it, but get through the whole piece first. You will be able to speed up later.
10. Franz Schubert: Impromptu Op. 90 No. 2
This piece appears very challenging, but like “Solfeggietto” it is much more approachable when broken down into its component parts. The imposing right hand part is constructed of major and minor scales with a few chromatic passages. Before learning this piece, practice all of your major and minor scales, especially those in flat keys.
The key to being able to play this Impromptu is fingering and especially thumb placement—if your thumb is misplaced then you will find yourself in a bind very quickly. Follow the editor’s suggested fingering when applicable, but when in doubt, keep in mind that when you play a scale you are using your thumb as an anchor point to get the rest of the fingers where they need to go. Pay attention to where the notes in this Impromptu are going next—if you need to flip to your thumb in order to keep going up or down, find the right place to do it by using your knowledge of scales as guidance. Practice slowly! This is a good piece to speed up once you are comfortable, but not before then!
Building Your Own Mental Toolbox
I hope this list of the easiest (hardest) piano pieces is helpful to you on your musical journey! Each of these pieces has its own set of challenges, but I choose to teach them to my own students because they have some common features that makes them good “toolbox” pieces.
- Brevity: At only 1-3 minutes long, each of these pieces is short enough to remember.
- Repeating arpeggiated patterns and scale patterns: Arpeggio patterns and scales are easy to remember, easy to play, and visually impressive!
- Repeating chord progressions: If you can remember the chords in a four chord progression then you don’t necessarily need to remember all of the notes in a piece individually. Use chord progressions as mental reminders to jog your memory! Number 6 on this list, “Comptine d’un autre été” or number 7, “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” are good examples.
- The hands don’t always play together at the same time: This is an especially important factor for beginners. It can be tricky to play two difficult lines simultaneously, but there are many great pieces that only require one note to be pressed at a time! Number 2 “Für Elise,” number 4 Prelude in C, and number 9 “Solfeggietto” are good examples of this concept.
Keep in mind that your mental toolbox does not have to be limited to just these pieces! Be on the lookout for pieces that sound fun and interesting to learn and play, especially if they display any of the previously mentioned characteristics. Chances are good that if you like the way a piece sounds, so will others! Good luck!