Classical Piano Music Styles

a person's hands placed on piano keys
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Classical piano music comes in a variety of musical genres. While most genres are noticeably different, many people are unable to identify any given genre due to lack of terminology. Here, we hope to distinguish the most common genres of classical piano music and provide recommendations of notable works.

Piano Concerto

A concerto is a work consisting of an orchestral ensemble and a smaller group or soloist. In a piano concerto, the piano is the solo instrument. Throughout the work, the contrast between soloist and ensemble is maintained. Although not exclusively, the concerto is comprised of three contrasting movements (fast-slow-fast). Notable piano concerti are Chopin - Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 1.

Piano Sonata

The term sonata has many connotations, but the most common usage of the term refers to a form of music originating from the classical period. The sonata usually consists of three to four movements with the first movement almost always in sonata form. Therefore, a piano sonata is an unaccompanied work for solo piano usually in three to four movements. Notable piano sonatas are Chopin - Piano Sonata No. 3 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Piano Trio

A piano trio is one of the most common forms of chamber music consisting of a piano and two other instruments. The most common instrumentation is piano, violin, and cello. Notable works include Brahms - Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 8 and Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, D. 929 (Op. 100).

Piano Quintet

The most common form of the piano quintet, a piano with four other instruments, is a piano with a string quartet. Most notable works include Schubert's "Trout" Piano Quintet in A Major. Read the analysis of the "Trout" Quintet. Watch a video of the "Trout" Quintet.

Solo Piano

Works for solo piano come in many different genres including the etude, prelude, polonaise, nocturne, mazurka, waltz, ballade, and scherzo. Some of the greatest composers for solo piano include Scriabin, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff.

  • An etude (French for study) is a piece of music designed to train a performer a particular skill on a solo instrument.
  • A prelude is a short piece of music with little or no particular internal form, sounding almost improvisatory.
  • A polonaise is a slow dance of Polish origin normally in 3/4 time.
  • A nocturne (French for nocturnal) is a piece of music inspired by the night.
  • A mazurka is an upbeat Polish folk dance in triple meter.
  • A waltz is another form of music relating to a folk dance in 3/4 time.
  • A ballade is a large-scale one-movement work with dramatic and narrative qualities.
  • A scherzo usually was a name given to a movement of a larger body of work, though in the later classical music periods, composers took the scherzo and made it into its own work. Scherzos are usually light-hearted, but Chopin's are much darker and dramatic.