The Hardest Pop Songs to Play on Piano

The Hardest Pop Songs to Play on Piano
The Hardest Pop Songs to Play on Piano

Classical music is often cited as being the most challenging of genres for the ardent pianist to tackle. What is occasionally overlooked are pieces of popular music, songs that afford a firm measure of challenge too.

The humble pop song may sound as if it’s just a regurgitation of a familiar chord pattern, but there’s more there than meets the ear.

The Hardest Pop Songs to Play on Piano

1. ‘Prelude/Angry Young Man’ by Billy Joel

Dating back to 1976 and Joel’s album titled ‘Turnstiles’ this track was number six on that collection. It received mixed reviews although many of the songs, including this one, have become established numbers in Billy Joel’s live performances.

This song is unusual when compared to the standard fare. Joel had a degree in classical piano training and loved the work of Beethoven.

In this piece, Joel begins the song with a challenging piano solo instead of plunging straight into a verse or chorus. One hypnotic characteristic of the ‘Prelude’, is a rapidly repeating single-note pattern.

This is quite tough to execute accurately but he also punctuates this figure with a rising pair of notes that outline the chord progression.

An easier, more gentle section follows, then a chordal passage that leads back to the opening idea. From here Joel segues into the song ‘Angry Young Man’. The ‘Prelude’ returns after the song to close the piece.

2. ‘Root Beer Rag’ by Billy Joel

Stepping back two years to 1974, this instrumental track came from Billy Joel’s album called ‘Street Life Serenade’

This was a collection of songs that Joel was not overly proud of. The album was a product of pressure from the record company to build on the success of Joel’s earlier album ‘Piano Man’, but busy with live performing he’d had little time for writing new songs.

‘Root Beer Rag’ and the second instrumental track called ‘The Mexican Connection’ were included in Street Life Serenade because of the lack of new songs. Whilst the latter track aims to fuse pop and Latin music, the rag looks back to the piano pieces of Scott Joplin.

It’s a very fast rag with a tempo much quicker than you’d find most rags written in. The opening idea is reminiscent of the style of music you hear played on a honky tonk piano in a dusty Western movie.

Aside from the speed, there are several technical challenges in the music. Many of the syncopated rhythms that bounce from one hand to the other in the second section of the piece.

This section also includes some tricky right-hand fingering in the chords but if practiced slowly it will sound good. It is a rewarding and exciting place to play that Billy Joel often includes in his set today.

3. ‘One Angry Dwarf’ by Ben Folds

Ben Folds entered the public arena with his group Ben Fold’s Five in the early 1990s. Amongst the many instruments Ben Folds plays with great style and accomplishment, the piano was his choice of an instrument with which to lead the group. (Which incidentally only had three members).

Broadly categorized as alternative rock, the band wrote songs with all kinds of different influences from jazz to Motown and back again. Many of the songs that came from the group are comic but often with more serious undertones.

One Angry Dwarf was the first track on Ben Fold’s Five-second album called Whatever and Ever Amen. It kicks off with a neat little piano riff that sets the tone for the rest of the song.

The piano dominates the song acting as both soloist and accompanist with Folds often using fists and dissonant note clusters to rhythmically drive the music. Where the virtuosity becomes apparent is in the piano solo.

Here Folds demonstrates his gift for jazz improvisation by creating a complex solo that leads back to a heated vocal passage. The cluster chords, rhythmic intricacies and melodic fluency embedded in this solo make it a major challenge for any pianist.

4. ‘Rush E’ by Sheet Music Boss

I should begin by saying that as I understand it, this piece was never intended to be performed by a human pianist. It is written for piano and was a spinoff of a Markiplier or Lord Marquaad E joke.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the piece went viral with pianists lining up to perform the supposedly unperformable. Many arrangements were made of Rush E in an attempt to pass them off as the original, but these were stepping stones towards the real piece.

Despite the questionable nature of these arrangements, many pianists achieved millions of views in a matter of months. The legend of Rush E was born.

There are many reasons why this piece is virtually unplayable. One of these is that the tempo is often extremely quick.

The opening of the piece is really why it has the title it has. It centres around a rapidly repeating ‘E’ that gradually gains in speed. This presents no problem for a MIDI virtual instrument playing through a piece of software but for the human, this is hard going.

There are exceedingly fast and large jumps across the piano’s compass that again, at speed are tricky to be accurate with. It doesn’t end there.

The main melody is not in itself too hard to play. What happens though is that this ends up being played at breakneck speed in chords whilst the repeating ‘E’ motif sounds through it all.

To top it all off there’s a nasty key change towards the end and a further acceleration up to the concluding cadence.

If you want to be able to perform exactly what you hear you’d need to have four hands and many hours of free time in which to perfect your work.

5. ‘Firth of Fifth’ by Genesis

This is one of my favourite tracks by Genesis and largely because of this amazing piano introduction by Tony Banks. The track comes from the 1973 album called Selling England By The Pound

Genesis was what is commonly referred to as a progressive rock band. This meant that unlike most popular songs their music took a leaf out of the classical repertoire making use of extended structures, complex chord progressions and unusual time signatures.

Bank’s composed the majority of the song and had hoped that it would make it onto the Album Foxtrot but the band felt it wasn’t right for that particular album and shelved it until the following year. It sounds very much like a prelude that a classical composer might have written.

Originally performed by Banks on a grand piano, the opening solo makes colourful use of the piano’s compass. Tricky changes in time signature and some rapid arpeggiated chords present a few enjoyable challenges to the pianist.

Careful coordination is required between the hands alongside clear balance and dynamic control.

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