impressive-sounding piano songs
March 26, 2006 2:44 AM   Subscribe

Impressing people with piano music.

I have recently gained possession of a piano, but being out of practice for over 10 years has made me a little rusty. I want to impress people, and quickly. I am looking for recommendations for songs that will knock people's socks off when they inevitably ask "can you play us a song?" Essentially, I am looking for the crowd-pleasers.

I have preferences for well-known, popular/jazzy style music, preferably with an upbeat tempo. I prefer minor key, but that's a minor issue. I have more than a mountain of classical works to impress people with, but those styles were what bored me ten years ago. I am up for a challenge, so stuff like Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata and Heart and Soul are Right Out.

FWIW, Tori Amos and Radiohead are the current pop repertoire. I investigated Coldplay as my boyfriend goes ga-ga over their simple yet effective piano riffs, but indeed, found them too simplistic.

If you can point me to a free copy of the score online, you can have bonus points, and the waitress at the bar will shout you a free drink.
posted by chronic sublime to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Why not learn to read chords-that will totally widen your repertoire. Seems like the stuff you want to play is of that sort, anyhow.
posted by konolia at 3:20 AM on March 26, 2006

Not contemporary, but Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" always worked for me. People will certainly recognize it, but probably not by name.

One time, I was playing it to test various keyboards at a store. A woman and her son walked by, and he declared "Wow. That guy is good." "No," she replied, "he's faking. That's just the demo."
posted by blenderfish at 3:20 AM on March 26, 2006

Konolia - chords aren't an issue: I have six years of formal training under my belt. Hence why I want to move away from classical-style sonatas and waltzes!

I should point out I am also hopeless at playing by ear. It would take me hours to work out even a few bars by ear.
posted by chronic sublime at 3:23 AM on March 26, 2006

I strongly second the Scott Joplin suggestion. also, check out Jarrett's riff on Over the Rainbow -- I was there, and it really was a transcendent moment
posted by matteo at 6:17 AM on March 26, 2006

Any ragtime stuff is sure to impress. Well, it worked on surley cowboys. Second blenderfish's Maple Leaf Rag suggestion. The Entertainer is another piano staple.

If you like analogies:
Stairway to Heaven : Guitar :: The Entertainer/MLR : Piano
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:18 AM on March 26, 2006

I think konolia is talking about being able to play a song that is written down as a list of chord changes (as chord names) rather than chords on a stave. Was that clear? Because if you can do that, you should be halfway towards playing popular songs by ear.

Honestly, the way to impress me would be to spend enough time studying theory and harmony that you can play what you want with relative ease, including improvisation. Singing and playing at the same time would also be good. In the short term, a large repertoire of technically relatively easy but current songs would be more impressive than one or two obviously demanding party pieces. If you're technically capable of much more, your confidence will make that obvious anyway. Demonstrate a real passion for music and people will remember you.

Sorry if this is an unhelpful (not to mention a bit patronizing - sorry!) non-answer. No doubt there is some subset of people who will be impressed by a mistake-free performance of a difficult score but it may not be as many as you think. Anyway, consider this a data point.
posted by teleskiving at 6:21 AM on March 26, 2006

I find that people are impressed with two things re the piano:
1. known melodies they can sing/hum along to
2. fast melodies
If I were you I'd construct a crowd-pleasing repertoire from some classical and some pop music.

I'd vouch for:
- Chopin.
The top score here goes to a flawless execution of his Fantasy Impromptu (in C# major) but that's the type of thing you only begin to learn after 4 years on a top-notch conservatory. Even if you have no clue about piano music, this is a jaw-dropping piece. If you want a challenge, this is it.
But there are many other etudes, nocturnes and preludes that are both dramatically impressive and well-known to the average listener. Check out whatever suits your fancy here (health warning: midi files)
- Bartok (for your minor key pieces)
He wrote a collection of short pieces for children (although you've gotta be a damn good child pianist to play them). They really sound nice and haunting.
- pop (for the sing-along effect)
Here the strategy is really simple. Get thee to a musical score shop and check out the stuff for guitar or adult-piano- learning. Some sing along stuff may include: Bob Marley, The Stones... I know a guy who can play an awesome rendition of Brittany Spear's "Hit me baby one more time" on the piano. He also plays "Holding out for a hero", and Keane "Somewhere Only We Know" (you know, the one where the refrain is "Oh simple thing, where have you gone..") It's a show-stopper.
- don't forget the simple melodies everyone grew up with.
Like, "Here comes the bride" (trivia: that's actually Wagner), "Twinkle twinkle little star" (that's Mozart), "Ode to joy" (Beethoven)... or if you're a geek you can always play that Super Mario theme (here's the score) - LOL@"moderato agitato molto"
posted by ruelle at 6:32 AM on March 26, 2006

This site is where i've been printing out some public domain stuff lately. I have been working on Joplin lately to get myself accustomed to more complex (to me) stuff and to try out some memorization techniques. I particularly like 'fig leaf rag' (and 'maple leaf rag' was the first i learned, of course). Also, currently I'm working on Swipesy, which is available at this site (which requires you to download a plugin but gives a variety of printable sheet music that you can hear in midi before downloading)...Swipesy is cool because it doesn't seem as difficult to play mechanically, but it has a nice impress-able factor in varying it's loud/soft dynamics...

...another thing i enjoy doing and that might be a pleaser (though i rarely play around others in any case, which i hope to change sometime), similar to what ruelle says, is to take well-known songs and then rework them into a different favorite so far is taking an old duranduran greatest hits book and playing it beginning to end in a very loose style, reversing the tempo expectations and thus playing a sad 'hunrgy like the wolf,' for instance...

...also a cool thing is to learn those simple melodies that ruelle mentions, and also take some of the classical stuff you've worked on, and then pop some of those little motifs into an unrelated song you are playing...people like a little unexpected flash of something whimsical yet familiar...
posted by troybob at 7:42 AM on March 26, 2006

If you go to Amazon and do searches for artists you like under "books" instead of "music," you'll pull up sheet music. Most of these results will be simpler "piano-vocal" editions that aren't album-accurate, but there are actual transcriptions available (for instance, this volume of Tori Amos songs, which according to reviews doesn't include melody lines in the pieces, or this transcription of Ben Fold's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner). There are several transcriptions of music by more popular pianists like Billy Joel and Elton John out there.
posted by the_bone at 8:02 AM on March 26, 2006

Since you are into Tori, I suggest learning the solo piano break from the middle of "Leather;" it's jazzy and easy but sounds pretty impressive when played with sufficient flair. Here's a transcription of the break, and there's a scan of the published sheet music for the rest of the song here if you don't already have it.
posted by purplemonkie at 8:28 AM on March 26, 2006

Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo Ala Turk has been covered by a lot of people, primarily, I think, because it is just the kind of piece for which you're looking. Although it's only #42 on this list, it's definitely in the show stopper category, and it's "rondo" section can be taken as fast and as furiously as you can possibly manage (and it really comes up even better if you have the strength and control for big dynamics), and then you can 'break' into the broad cool of the refrain like sun coming out from behind the clouds..
posted by paulsc at 9:24 AM on March 26, 2006

Learn songs by people like Ben Folds, Billy Joel, and Elton John. They have busy, flourishy piano parts, and pop songs that lots of people know and can sing along to. I suppose other stuff like this would be Alicia Keys or Vanessa Carlton, but now I'm out of my element. But there are lots of classically-trained-pianist pop songsters.

You could adapt Simon and Garfunkel or James Taylor or stuff of that nature pretty easily for piano, as well. You could always do Beatles songs, too, but they don't have complex piano parts in general (In My Life solo notwithstanding). But then, your friends will still probably be impressed by you playing a good song that they can sing along with even if it doesn't use all of your chops.

It's hard to find good sheet music online, but you can usually find decent chord transcriptons, or better yet, transcribe it yourself.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:34 AM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pianist Christopher O'Reily recorded an album of classical piano arrangements of Radiohead songs called True Love Waits. He also has released a ccore book of his arrangements. It's not particularly cheap, though.
posted by andrewraff at 9:55 AM on March 26, 2006

er, score book.
posted by andrewraff at 9:55 AM on March 26, 2006

"Rhapsody" by Melody Bober. It's really easy, but sounds really hard. I used it to win several awards and got into college with it.
posted by fvox13 at 11:32 AM on March 26, 2006

Yep, I did mean being able to read a chord chart. I can play anything I want. (But I stink at classical. Oh well.)
As to ear training, I firmly believe that is a skill you can learn. Knowing chords and music theory certainly would help. An intro course in music theory would not be remiss. Or, just go to the music store. They often have booklets listing common chords for each key along with the chords written out on a stave.
posted by konolia at 12:30 PM on March 26, 2006

ruelle: Chopin. The top score here goes to a flawless execution of his Fantasy Impromptu (in C# major) but that's the type of thing you only begin to learn after 4 years on a top-notch conservatory. Even if you have no clue about piano music, this is a jaw-dropping piece. If you want a challenge, this is it.
I don't know about that- it's something I was playing a year into piano lessons. Ah, but there's the difference; playing something, and playing it well. Badly played classical is not only not as familiar to audiences, but rather annoying to listen to. I know; when I was a youngin' I used to whip out the Polonaise in A flat or the Fantasie Impromptu or even the first movement of the 2nd piano sonata in Bb minor, just to impress people. Now I don't play the piano for anyone but myself, because I realized a long time ago that I rather suck at piano- all mechanical, no heart.

Ear training is unavoidable
Speaking to OP: you're simply going to have to develop your ear somewhat, or you'll never play anything with the right level of comfort and I can recommend a decent way to do it. If you can sight read at all, try recording yourself playing something for the first time, at as slow a speed as necessary as to hit all the notes correctly. Then, put away the sheet music, and using only the recording of yourself playing (at probably 1/4 speed or whatever), re-figure out the song without referencing the sheet music. This will train your ear in a way that trying to "pick out" the notes on professionally produced music won't, and over time you'll be able to rather easily get the "gist" of any song you hear and play it out adequately, if not every last passing tone and complex harmonics.

Also, the Radiohead stuff like Coldplay should be extremely easy to pick out on your own piano- very much standard chords with expected bassline movement- but if not then it's probably worth the $60 for that sheet music score that andrewraff links if this matters to you. A quick listen sounds like the kind of stuff that you'd want: recognizable modern music played with a classical flair, so people can both appreciate the recognizable music they like, and be wowed by your smoother "classical" style. Best of both worlds!

Free Tori Amos sheet music
Even if you can't sing- or even better, if you can- you should also search on the net for those transcriptions of Tori cover songs. While I love Tori's music (at least up till a few years ago when she seems to have lost her way), sometimes her covers are even more impressive- and are a terrific guide to how to play a song for piano that adds nuance and depth. Her covers of "Smells like teen spirit" and "Famous Blue Raincoat" are heart-rendingly beautiful, and really capture something that is often more obscured in the original version... I used to pull off a passable version of the SLTS to much aplomb.

More than a lot of musicians, she inspires real pianists to do faithful transcriptions instead of those annoying "chords/tabs" versions, or ones where the sung melody is inserted gracelessly into the treble clef. I just did a quick search and (re)discovered this site, "A Velvet Hologram", which is probably the one I found years ago and includes some good homegrown sheet music versions of her songs without the awful Hal Leonard treatment. If you're a Tori fan, that might be just your kind of place.
posted by hincandenza at 1:09 PM on March 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I do understand the chord suggestion: it means I need to make a concerted effort to dig out the old theory books and do some practice with intervals.

Thanks to those who provided links to Tori transcripts: I have long suffered at the hands of (as hincandenza describes it) trebel-cleffed melodies. That Velvet Hologram site is just the salve I need to get through the good stuff (like the Leather solo.)

BEN FOLDS! Now there's a suggestion that 's bang on the money. His stuff just seems like pure joy to play. I have had Song for the Dumped stuck in my head since the_bone first suggested it.

Keep the suggestions coming. There are some great specific suggestions (will check them all out) as well as some general piano-playing stuff I needed as I'm not getting formal lessons at the moment. The poppy stuff is for me, the jazz is for the parents. Something for everyone!
posted by chronic sublime at 1:38 PM on March 26, 2006

I second hincandenza regarding Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu. It's fast, but not impossible given a bit of technique and practice.

A bigger challenge is Scriabin's 1st sonata. It's also *very* impressive if you can pull it off. And it's in minor key, although it's often hard to tell with Scriabin.

I also like the Rachmaninov preludes, especially the one in C# minor, which everyone knows and isn't very difficult if your hands are big enough, and the lesser-known one in Eb major (if I remember correctly).
posted by sour cream at 1:49 PM on March 26, 2006

And here are some free, handwritten transcriptions of Radiohead songs. Enjoy!
posted by the_bone at 4:33 PM on March 26, 2006

that's a cool link, the_bone, but I'm trying to find a good viewer for .nwc files.

I found the "noteworthy player" from which is a freeware player, but whenever I run it windows DEP shuts it down. I'm not willing to risk turning it off, because while it's probably shutting it down for something like direct hardware access (to the sound card/midi controller), I don't want to take the chance just in case this is malicious. So I removed it, and found the "Noteworthy Composer Viewer". This opens fine without issue, but gives the error "unregistered files are not supported" for the .nwc files downloaded from the ben folds site.

Any suggestions?
posted by hincandenza at 4:59 PM on March 26, 2006

Eh- forgot I asked; looks like most of the ones I'm interested in are in .pdf or .jpg format, so I'll just live without. :) Sorry for the threadjack- good posts the_bone, BF is fun to play.
posted by hincandenza at 5:06 PM on March 26, 2006

Yeah, I didn't see those .nwc files. I'm not sure how to open those either.

A note on the Radiohead link: I'm not real familiar with those songs, but now that I've taken a closer look at the transcriptions it seems that a lot of the rhythms are notated rather idiosyncratically. I'm sure they're still useful regardless.
posted by the_bone at 8:18 PM on March 26, 2006

hincandenza: "I don't know about that- it's something I was playing a year into piano lessons."

If so, I am duly impressed. After a year into piano lessons, most people can't finish the first stanza
Although, you do agree that to impress people, you would whip out a (perhaps poorly-played?) Chopin.
posted by ruelle at 2:23 AM on March 27, 2006

Yup- that's precisely what it was, ruelle, and thanks for the compliement. I played because I was young and wanted to impress people- it was showing off, and nothing more. I only saw playing as a way to earn applause and praise.

I'll admit, I learned quickly- I have a really good memory, so I was pulling off Fantasie Impromptu at my 1 year piano recital, and quite passable performances of the Appassionata and the Polonaise in Ab at my second year recital. And then I quit playing after 2 years of lessons (I was 15 at the time), because I grew frustrated at what I saw was a plateau I'd hit: I was technically able to play music, but didn't feel that I'd learned anything in terms of really feeling the music, or being able to hear a piece and play it from ear alone. Didn't play at all for a few years, then as an adult I bought a full-size keyboard and have tinkered around on it every now and then, just for enjoyment and only for myself. It's better that way- more honest. I don't play to impress my parents or classmates now, I play because i actually enjoy it- playing pop songs, singing along with them quite badly- and having a good time.
posted by hincandenza at 1:40 PM on March 27, 2006

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