Top Ten Best Pop Songs for Piano, According to a Musicologist

While the electric guitar gets most of the glory in popular music since the 60s, the piano still sits at the center of many memorable songs.

Back in the tin pan alley days, hopeful songwriters pitched their latest tunes to publishers with hand-scrawled sheet music and piano players who were hired to read and play them on the spot.

These songs each feature the piano in some very important way, be it a memorable riff, a solo, or as pure accompaniment.


The Way It Is

by Bruce Hornsby
Just The Way It Is - Bruce Hornsby

This tune took over the airwaves in 1986. It was everywhere.

It was the Song of the Year and reached No. 1 on many charts including the Billboard Hot 100 and  Billboard Adult Contemporary Charts.

Its signature piano riff was sampled by 2Pac for his song Changes

Bruce studied jazz piano and arranging at the University of Miami yet his songwriting is pure Americana. He’s toured with The Grateful Dead, Ricky Skaggs, and of course his own band Bruce Hornsby and The Range.

He describes writing The Way It Is, as a fluke, an accident, a riff that stumbled upon him.

The music world is glad Bruce was paying attention.

Give the song a listen here.


Aja

by Steely Dan
Aja - Steely Dan

Aja, the song, was released on the album of the same name in 1977.

Aja could be described as a suite, with several sections, tempo and feel changes, and harmonic language not usually found in the pop music lexicon. 

Also, it features one of the greatest drum solos on record by Steve Gadd.

Michael Omartian handles the piano duties on Aja and although there’s no solo per se, the piano track serves as the glue that holds the entire song together.

Give the song a listen here.


Your Song

by Elton John
Your Song – Elton John

People might let Sir Elton’s stage antics and stage persona overshadow his piano playing. That would be a mistake.

This pop ballad masterpiece is an example of perfect song construction with a memorable piano “riff” melody that returns several times in the song.

This is classic piano accompaniment from 1971.

Give the song a listen here.


If I Ain’t Got You

by Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys I Ain't Got You

Alicia Keys introduced the piano to a whole new generation of listeners with If I Ain’t Got You, among other songs.

A gifted singer-songwriter, she is her own best accompanist; soulful,  bluesy, and in-the-pocket playing, as musicians, like to say.

Reaching No. 4 on the several Billboard charts, it’s a swinging 12/8 ballad that tries to answer the question of what life is really about.

As a side note, Ms. Keys has said the song was written after the sudden death of singer Aaliyah in a 2001 plane crash.

Give the song a listen here.


Lady Madonna

by The Beatles
Lady Madonna - The Beatles

Paul McCartney has said:

Lady Madonna was me sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing … It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression.

John Lennon who co-wrote the lyrics has said:

Good piano lick, but the song never really went anywhere”, adding: “Maybe I helped him on some of the lyrics, but I’m not proud of them either way.

Artistic value aside, the piano part in Lady Madonna is a swinging nod and wink to the New Orleans boogie-woogie masters of the early 20th century.

Give the song a listen here.


Piano Man

by Billy Joel
Piano Man - Billy Joel

As someone who worked for years in some of the best lounges and piano bars in the world, not a night goes by that someone requests Piano Man. 

Objectively speaking, it’s a brilliant piece of songcraft, that puts the pianist and the bar patrons directly into the narrative every night it’s requested.

Cause they know that it’s me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while…

Give the song a listen here.


Minute By Minute

by The Doobie Brothers
Minute By Minute – The Doobie Brothers

Most people don’t know that Michael McDonald, the singer, was a serious in-demand session keyboard player, hired by the likes of Fagen & Becker of Steely Dan fame, Toto, and others.

The intro section to Minute by Minute is a testament to his gospel chops and ease with changes of time feel. It’s played on a Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Give the song a listen here.


Walkin’ In Memphis

by Marc Cohen
Walkin’ In Memphis - Marc Cohen

It’s 1991 and Walkin In Memphis is dominating the radio airwaves.

With its ear-worm piano riff, and imagery dripping of the blues in the deep south, Walkin’ In Memphis reached No. 13 on the Billboard Top 100 and is still requested in piano bars everywhere. 

The piano here is once again the foundation that the song is built around.

Give the song a listen here.


Georgia On My Mind

by Ray Charles
Georgia On My Mind - Ray Charles

It’s hard to choose one Ray Charles tune as he was a giant of a pianist. He could play stride and swing and solo with the best of them over complex chord changes., all the while singing from that soul-filled place inside of himself.

Georgia, one of Ray’s live signature songs, is a Hoagy Carnichael (music) and Stuart Gorrel (lyrics) standard written in 1930.

In 1960, Ray’s recording went to No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100.

While there is no piano solo in Georgia, and the focus is clearly on Ray’s voice, the piano accompaniment here is a study in support, rhythm, and harmony. You hardly know it’s there which is the true genius of it.

Give the song a listen here.


A Thousand Miles

by Vanessa Carlton
A Thousand Miles – Vanessa Carlton

 Vanessa was sixteen years old when she came up with the piano lick for A Thousand Miles.

That made more sense after discovering her mother was a piano teacher.

A Thousand Miles reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the list for forty-one weeks. It’s been covered and sampled by numerous artists and remains a popular sheet music download for pianists and singers alike.

Give the song a listen here.


These ten songs showcase some of the piano’s influence in popular music over the last 50 years

 The modern-day piano hasn’t changed much since the late 19th century. It is a melodic instrument.  It is a percussion instrument.  It is the entire orchestra.

It will likely remain at the heart of songwriting and storytelling forever. 

Listen for your life.

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