What are the "beginner pianist" cliche songs and melodies?
February 15, 2013 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to compile a list of those piano songs that "everybody" learns because they are simple, memorable, or good skill builders. Any genre is acceptable.

I am a decent guitarist and singer and I would like to learn piano.

Right now my biggest obstacle is that I obviously don't want to learn badly enough that I am willing to work very hard at it. I understand how to play chords and can bang out the chords of songs I know on guitar, but I feel pretty wooden in that I'm not able to get my hands moving to play melodies or bass lines. My sheet music reading ability is pretty basic - again, I know it's something that I will have to work at, but I'm hoping this "shortcut" will give me faster success to help motivate my playing.

What I am looking for is a list of all of the beginner piano cliches - the songs that sound difficult or complex but aren't, the easy songs that every beginner pianist can play the first dozen bars of, the old pop chestnuts that everybody knows and are easy to play. My theory at the moment is that I will be able to learn these parts as building blocks for my eventual piano mastery. Ultimate goal is to be decent enough to play for friends and family in casual settings.

So, lets hear it piano teachers and music store employees. What is the "Smoke on the Water" of the piano? What song do you wish you never had to hear again?

(I promise I will use this knowledge for good, not evil)
posted by davey_darling to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Scott Joplin's The Entertainer
Fur Elise
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 9:45 AM on February 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Hot Crossed Buns
The Entertainer
The Muppet Show Theme

and no joke, The Ukranian Bell Carol (or Carol of the Bells). I did 12 odd years of piano training and that was an earlier song I learned. The right hand is just basic chords and the left hand is a lot of repeated over and over stuff.

Also, look for songs that you already know well. We did a lot of TV and Movie theme songs in my lessons because I already knew how they were supposed to go. Helped a lot.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:48 AM on February 15, 2013

It's been decades since I took piano, but I remember some Bela Bartok pieces (arrangements of folk melodies I think -- I'm sure someone here knows about this better than I) that sounded good, were fun to play, and fairly easy to learn.
posted by pantarei70 at 9:49 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Elly Vortex at 9:50 AM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Heart and Soul, too.

They don't sound that impressive, but everyone knows them.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:52 AM on February 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh man, I WISH my piano teacher had given us Scott Joplin.

I took piano from ages 4-11. There was some piece called Tarantella in the series of lesson books we used, and someone would play it at every goddamned recital.

It was one of the first pieces in a new book level, and the kids who chose to play it were basically screaming HEY LOOK AT ME I'M ONE BOOK LEVEL MORE ADVANCED THAN YOU SUCKERS even though they really hadn't learned much more than the kids who were still on the previous level.

The kids with the real chops never chose recital pieces from the lesson books.

Why yes, I did hate being forced into lessons.
posted by phunniemee at 9:55 AM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Turn On The Sun

The First Noel

Sally Gardens

posted by Chorus at 9:56 AM on February 15, 2013

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
posted by Specklet at 10:01 AM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Spinning Song! Still a favorite of mine.
posted by Flannery Culp at 10:03 AM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Bach's Minuet in G Major. Also, I'm pretty sure that the Bartok collection pantarei70 refers to is Mikrokosmos.
posted by the_bone at 10:07 AM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Go Tell Aunt Rhody - it's the only song I can still remember how to play!
posted by just_ducky at 10:25 AM on February 15, 2013

posted by path at 10:26 AM on February 15, 2013

"Jingle Bells" is very easy to play on the piano, and often one of the first "two hands" songs that beginning players learn.

Students inevitably learn a piano arrangement of Canon in D at some point. It sounds pretty, it's familiar, and it can be greatly simplified depending on skill level.

But yeah, Moonlight Sonata (first movement), Fur Elise, and Carol of the Bells are definitely the big piano student cliches.
posted by castlebravo at 10:41 AM on February 15, 2013

Debussy's "First Arabesque" is an advanced-beginner or intermediate student cliché — or at least it was where I used to take lessons.

Another piano recital staple from my childhood: this here Grieg piece, which fits into the "sounds more impressive than it is" category. All those quick little figures turn out to fit under your hand really conveniently, with almost no finger-crossing or other tricky stuff, so it's not all that hard to get to where you can just blaze through it.

The Bach that's been recommended so far mostly comes from his "Notebook for Anna Magdalena," and it's probably worth just getting a copy of the whole thing. It's full of really good playable stuff for absolute beginners, including a few more that might be common enough for the cliché file (the other minuet in G, and this one in d minor, and this one in g minor, and....) plus a bunch that are underrated but still really great.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 11:02 AM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's a little bit of a diversion from the question, since I don't think these pieces fall into the category of "easily recognizable stuff," but since it's come up a couple of times alredy, I started learning with Bartok's Mikrokosmos and really liked it. His sound isn't for everyone, but it's very approachable for beginners. I wouldn't recommend it for an absolute beginner who was trying to self-teach (the book is very barebones, and all the pedagogy is in the structure of the pieces themselves... there's almost no instructional text, theory background, or explanation of basic principles) but since you have a music background already you'd have a leg up. It's a nice book because it's progressively built, so the difficulty edges up over time and you continue to be steadily rewarded by success, and I think that answers the motivation part of your question. If I recall correctly, there are no chords in volume 1--just single-note melody and accompaniment--so it's pretty easy to sight-read too.

I can also say that as an absolute beginner I was able to learn Heart and Soul pretty easily. (But that all depends on the arrangement you pick--given the song's history, there is a pretty wide array of different arrangements, some quite simple and others complex.) I found a pretty easy arrangement on musicnotes.com and worked on it with my teacher.

Also, might be too easy for you, but any of the Alfred adult piano books will have recognizable folk, pop and traditional pieces in them, albeit with super simple and short arrangements.
posted by Kosh at 12:18 PM on February 15, 2013

These are more exercise based than song based, but: here is a PDF with sheet music for Hanon. Here is Czerny.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:33 PM on February 15, 2013

Came in to say Canon in D. You also want an amped-down arrangement of Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. I don't know if it's a cliche, necessarily, but it definitely has that sounds-hard-but-isn't-really thing going (well, my arrangement did) and helped me to satisfy the teenage goal of sounding as good as possible on as little practice as possible.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:42 PM on February 15, 2013

The Essential Keyboard Repertoire series of books is just full of these.

I think Für Elise is the best analogy to "Smoke on the Water", because it's instantly recognizable and piano teachers are sick of hearing it.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:15 PM on February 15, 2013

This isn't a specific song but a bread and butter technique: play octaves on the root of the chord with your left hand, and fill out the remaining notes of the chord with your right. A great way to arrange chords on the fly that give them a nice big sound. An open, stable octave like a fifth will also work on the left hand in a similar fashion.
posted by grog at 10:25 AM on February 16, 2013

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