As a beginner on almost every instrument, the range of possible pieces can be limited which is not encouraging if you want to make progress. Fortunately, in the case of the Piano, there is a vast amount of music that less experienced piano players can tackle and achieve wonderful musical results.
In this article, I will take a look at a broad cross-section of piano works that can be enjoyed not only as a beginner but also as a more seasoned player. The majority of the compositions I have listed come from the Western Classical genre of music although there are many other pieces from the world of Film, TV and Popular music that will be easily accessible to beginner pianists.
Eric Satie is probably best known for this small collection of piano pieces. They are on the face of it each remarkably simple, almost transparent in sound quality, but require sensitivity and concentration to play well. The Gymnopedies were composed over a span of time beginning in 1888. The title is a curious one but refers to the Greek word Gymnopaedia, a festival and dance. Beautiful pieces, sublimely tranquil and expertly composed.
2) JS Bach – Minuet in G major; BWV 114
From the “Notebooks for Anna Magdalena”, Bach wrote this extremely popular Minuet towards the end of his life in 1725. This piece comes from the second of two notebooks that contain the works of other composers including Bach. This Minuet, even though it sounds as if it could have been composed by Bach was in all probability written by Christian Petzold. It is a charming piece requiring equal fluency in both left and right hand and a steady pulse.
3) JS Bach Gavotte in G Major; BWV 816
This brief Gavotte has had the enduring popularity for literally hundreds of years. It is part of Bach’s French Suite in G Major. The Gavotte is a light dance with a two-beat feel, not to be hurried and yet played with a certain flow. It is a great example of Bach’s gift for melody writing.
4) Edvard Grieg – Morning from “Peer Gynt”
There are several versions of this work, the most well-known for piano and for orchestra. The piece titled Morning comes from the larger Peer Gynt Suite inspired by the poetry of Ibsen. Melodically it is stunning and seems to effortlessly capture the essence of the start of a Norwegian day.
5) Dvorak – Largo from the New World Symphony
rings some deep yearning in many who hear it. The opening chords are particularly cinematic and have inspired many a Hollywood score. In the orchestral version of the music, the melody takes on an even more poignant quality played on the cor anglais.
6) Haydn – Quadrille; Hob. IX:29
The quadrille is a dance that as you might guess from the name is performed by four couples arranged into a square. This quadrille was originally composed as part of a larger work for orchestra but works very well for piano alone. There are challenges for the pianist not to play too fast and to look out for appoggiaturas. Dynamics can be sensitively decided by the performer.
7) Brahms – Cradle Song (No. 4 of Five Songs Op.49) (Video below playable!)
This is one of the most famous tunes from the Classical world of music. Brahms composed this cradle song as part of the “Wiegenlied” which was five sons including this one. The melody is wonderfully simple and has been used by countless numbers of parents to sing their little ones to rest. It would seem that Brahms became less enamoured of the popular lullaby as time went on but its popularity has endured.
8) Anton Diabelli – Bagatelle
Diabelli is perhaps better known for his “Variations” but this little piece for beginners is full of charm and challenge. The work is in C Major and should be played with a gentle three in the bar feel. Keep in mind a bagatelle is a piece that is light and almost carefree. This should be reflected in the music.
9) W A Mozart – Minuet in F Major, KV2
This is an extremely early example of Mozart’s work. It is supposed to have been composed when the composer was only five or six years old but already we can hear the characteristics of the composer to be. It is a short but carefully written piece that demands a balance between the hands and a gentle sense of the dance to which the title refers.
10) Minuet in C Major, KV 6
Similar in style to the minuet above but with slightly less work for the left hand to accomplish. The melody for this minuet has delicate chromatic inflexions that add colour to the whole short piece. Regularly phrased and tight in its formality, but a lovely great piece for the beginner who wants to get to know Mozart’s work.
11) Contradance in G Major, KV269 b by Mozart
The title refers to a folk dance where couples form two long lines along the length of a hall, each taking turns to dance with another partner. This contradance is another example of early Mozart. It has the customary upbeat beginning and the technical challenge of playing in thirds in the right hand. It has an unhurried two-beats to the bar feel and offers the pianist the opportunity to incorporate some Classical ornamentation into their performance. There should be a careful contrast between legato passages and the lighter, more detached sections with some thoughtfully added dynamics for colour.
12) Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star – Mozart variations K.265
This might be a choice that’s perhaps a little too obvious, but it’s very often a tune that all instrumentalists and vocalists enjoy learning. The tune is actually called “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” which was published around 1761. It is French in origin and the words we associate with the tune not added until the 19th Century. These variations on the original French melody are sublime. They are not the easiest of pieces, but begin with approachable options for the budding pianist, moving into some entertaining variations that show Mozart’s mastery of the form.
13) Johann Pachelbel – Canon in D
This is one of the most played and arranged pieces of Western Classical music that has ever come into existence. There are numerous versions for easy piano that offer the pianist some manageable technical challenges with the reward of being able to play one of the world’s most popular tunes. One approach is to memorize the ground bass first heard in the left hand and gradually learn each successive layer, slowly, on top. The canon gradually has smaller note values and gives the impression of getting faster even though the initial bass remains unchanged. It’s a fun but challenging piece to learn.
14) Offenbach – Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffman
This rather sweet little barcarolle comes from what Offenbach called an opera fantastique. It features at the opening of Act Three and has the title “Beautiful night, oh night of love.” This is because Hoffman is now madly in love with a lady of the court, Giulietta and is convinced she loves him too. The Barcarolle is in a gentle, lilting compound duple time (6/8) and falls quite easily under the fingers of the less experienced pianist. It remains one of the most popular tunes from 19th-century opera.
15) Schumann – The Happy Farmer
There is a remarkable innocence and vitality to this brief piece that perhaps has held its appeal through generations of pianists. The composition comes from Schumann’s Op.68 titled “Album for the Young”. It is a collection of forty-three short character pieces, each with their own challenges. The Happy or joyous Farmer is not as simple as you might expect as Schumann presents the melody in the left hand of the piano with the right hand accompanying in off-beat quavers. A careful balance must be maintained throughout and even though the tempo is Allegro the piece should not have the feeling of being hurried.
16) Tchaikovsky – Waltz of the Flowers
This is a very well-known waltz from one of the most celebrated ballets of all time; “The Nutcracker”. The tune is very approachable and if a steady pulse is maintained throughout the piece by the left hand, a musical outcome is very achievable. Tchaikovsky had an extraordinary gift for melody and this piece is no exception. In the version below you will notice there are some challenging passages with the swapping of hands but with slow practice, this is perfectly possible. Keep the flow of the waltz and try to include a variety of dynamics for colour.
17) Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
It would be an oversight to not include this enchanting melody from the Nutcracker. This piece offers the pianist the opportunity to develop their staccato performance technique whilst learning a truly wonderful tune. The music is quite chromatic harmonically and even though the left-hand doesn’t move very far, the intervals of a third can be testing.
18) Beethoven – Ode To Joy
Beethoven composed nine symphonies in his relatively short life. The now very famous Ode To Joy is the fourth movement of his final symphony, the ninth (Op. 125). It is a huge celebration of man’s eventual triumph over the darkness of the world and a testament to the enduring spirit of humanity. The piece has remained popular not only because of the positive message Beethoven conveys but the accessibility of the melody. Harmonically it is not complex either and totally possible for pianists to learn both chords and melody by ear. Beethoven naturally takes the musical possibilities of this tune into directions that only he could to create a finale for the ninth that remains to my mind unparalleled.
19) Für Elise
Similar to the Ode to Joy, this short piece by Beethoven has gained a status amongst pianists that he could never have imagined. There is much speculation about the title of this piece. Who Elise was we can to be sure but what we do know was that Beethoven was suffering increasingly with his hearing and his poor health. His proposals to several women had fallen through and his had considered ending his life. Fur Elise is tinged with a melancholy that is part of its appeal. To listen to, the piece can give the appearance of being simple to play but there are many complexities that need to be taken into account; especially rhythmic accuracy and careful fingering. There are many versions of the work including simplified ones that are a good starting point not only for this piece but for an entry point into Beethoven’s world.
20) Camille Saint-Saëns – ‘The Elephant’ from The Carnival of the Animals
From the opening march to the very end of this promenade, the Carnival of the Animals is a delightfully playful set of pieces. Saint-Saëns composed the work following a somewhat disastrous concert tour and perhaps the work on the carnival helped him rejuvenate. ‘The Sawn’ is perhaps the best-known of the sections but the elephant is a more approachable piece and equally enjoyable to play. Like the manner of the animal, never approach the piece with speed and try to give it a considered feel but always with a sprinkle of humour too.
21) Vivaldi – ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons is one of the most performed pieces of Baroque music ever composed. Vivaldi had the supreme ability to capture the moods and feelings that surround the seasons of the year and in this piece, he encapsulates the lively, optimistic frame of mind that often accompanies the coming of spring. Originally, the music is for solo strings and a modest string orchestra but the music works extremely well for piano too.