The piano has become an iconic instrument for numerous films over the years, from the days of the silent film to the present day. Perhaps the appeal of this instrument is that its range spans over seven and a quarter octaves with enormous expressive qualities.
It has given rise to some of the most extraordinary pieces of film music, stretching back to the days of the silent movie. In this article, I explore a handful of the most celebrated works for the instrument.
12 Famous Piano Pieces from the Movies
1. River Flows In You by Yiruma
This astonishingly beautiful piano solo was used in the movie Twilight (2008) and has become a massive hit with both the Twilight fans and the many followers of Yiruma. Yiruma is a pianist/composer, born in South Korea. Whilst studying in England at Kings College, London, Yiruma released his first album called “Love Scene” and he has enjoyed a huge following ever since. The piece is minimal in style but fluidly melodic and lyrical.
2. Forrest Gump Main Theme by Alan Silvestri
A wonderfully naïve and open movie theme featuring the piano as the lead instrument. The music reflects the uniqueness of Forrest Gump in its child-like simplicity, almost reminiscent of a playground song. There is an engaging playfulness to the opening of the theme and it is certainly approachable for beginner piano players.
3. Pearl Harbour; Main Theme by Hans Zimmer
This theme is as epic as the movie it accompanies. The sense of drama and adventure is effortlessly portrayed in this melody, orchestrated for strings with a piano solo. The pace of the theme is somewhat subdued as if reluctant or struggling to be heard. Memorable writing from Hans Zimmer.
4. The Intouchables – (Una Mattina) by Ludovico Einaudi
The subject matter of this film is touching and at times difficult to watch. Einaudi’s music beautifully captures the essence of this inspiring film with its transparency and gently flowing melody. The style is overtly minimalistic which is appealing and in this case, has a timeless quality to it.
5. “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” from The Piano by Michael Nyman
This film brought the music of Nyman effectively into the public domain and secured his place as a popular minimalist composer and performer. The film is a treasure trove of glittering piano pieces that ably support the narrative of the movie. Many of the tracks from The Piano have been featured in concert performances and this one remains at the top of many pianists lists as a favourite. Even though the theme itself is relatively simple, the rhythmic changes are quite challenging to manage. (For more information about Nyman visit his website: http://www.michaelnyman.com)
6. Dawn from Pride & Prejudice by Dario Marienelli
On first hearing, you could easily think you are listening to a piece of Mozart or Haydn. The influence of Classical music remains throughout reflecting the period of the film in a subtle and effective manner. The minimalism of Marienelli blends seamlessly with the echoes of early music to create a film score that even Jane Austin would probably have approved of. This little cue is delightful and very playable by pianists with some experience.
7. Main Titles from Chocolat by Rachel Portman
Rachel Portman has written many successful movie scores. Her style is understated, highly evocative and melodically inspired. This theme from Chocolat is no exception. There is an underlying sense of the tragic and mysterious in the music, with more than a sprinkling of the playful. Portman’s deft orchestration is something to be aware of in this compelling film.
8. American Beauty by Thomas Newman
Thomas Newman created a hauntingly original soundtrack for this extraordinary film. From the first few notes of this piece, there is a distant anticipation and sense of the eternal and timeless. The music is remarkably simple, the piano repeating a varied pattern over sustained string harmonics and chords. The music floats in a meditative way that is calming and unsettling at the same time.
9. Main Title from The Firm by David Grusin
This track stands out from the other film tracks listed here as its roots are firmly in the world of Jazz. Grusin, now in his eighties, is famous as a jazz pianist, arranger and film composer. In the main titles, we hear him at his best in a rhythmically driven solo piano piece. It seems to evoke the bustle and energy of a busy city with an edgy undertone that neatly sets the tone for the drama of the coming movie. It is a challenging piece to perform but for any aspiring jazz pianists, Grusin’s music is well worth exploring.
10. “What Else Do You Love” from The English Patient by Gabriel Yared
One of the most moving films I’ve ever seen. The complexities of the story show through the underlying harmonies of this theme that quietly create a state of anxiousness and tragedy. This short piano cue is an inspired piece of understated scoring and brilliantly haunting. The piano features throughout the film in various guises from the melancholy to upbeat Jazz, so there is plenty of material to be inspired by.
11. “Comptine d’un Autre Été” from Amélie by Yann Tiersen
The piano is the instrument of choice throughout this charming movie. With more than a touch of the melancholic, this minimalist-style piece has been amongst the most popular tracks composed in recent decades. Tiersen himself readily admits to having no formal musical training and does not even think of himself as a composer. This perhaps accounts for the understated simplicity of this track, but also its amazing effectiveness too. The track is not overly challenging to play and always popular with audiences.
12. Maestro from The Holiday by Hans Zimmer
Richly romantic and full, this Zimmer track smoothly portrays the principal focus of the movie: love. Melodically and harmonically the theme is very simple and relatively easy to play. It is quite a departure from the more recent scores written by Zimmer but ably demonstrates his gift for capturing the essence of every movie he composes for.