Piano is hands down the greatest instrument ever made. Even better than drums. And as far as genres go, classical is, without a doubt, the most timeless music ever.
What happens when you combine the two in their most essential forms? You get this: The best classical piano sonatas ever written.
Before I move on, please note: I use the term “sonata” a bit loosely — my list includes some pieces with no additional movements. But I am using the term “classical” strictly — anything from the common practice period of 1600-1910, spanning baroque, classical, and romantic periods.
So put on your powdered wig. Dress in a frilly shirt. And don’t applaud during the pauses, please. It’s the top 10 best classical piano sonatas of all-time.
10. Bach: Prelude No.1 in C Major
Here’s a little tip: If you ever want to avoid getting into trouble when asked who your favorite classical composer is, just say Bach. People will indelibly nod and say, “Ah, yes. Good choice.” No one would argue against that.
But I digress. Prelude No. 1 is on this list not because who it is written by, but for what it is: A relaxing and fitting primer to the following nine “hits” on my list.
It may not be Bach’s best work, and it’s certainly not the most riveting sonata. But it is, as the British would say, most agreeable.
9. Brahms: Waltz No. 15 in A-Flat Major
Short and sweet. That’s the best way to describe Brahms’ most famous piano waltz.
It’s light on its feet. Bouncy. Yet elegant.
The only downside: It’s so good, I would have preferred multiple variations.
Either way, take special note of the finale changes after the first minute. Most. Delicate. Ending. Ever.
8. Scott Joplin: The Entertainer
Snooty Euros and overeducated Americans may not consider Joplin a classical composer. But the hoi polloi do!
(Joplin was classically trained, considers his ragtime “classical music in miniature form,” was labeled a “classical phenomenon,” and his work is largely sold in classical sections. Take that, aristocrats!)
Back to the song at hand, I once heard a rumor that the piece is so popular in music heaven, that Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach practically fall over themselves trying to get closer to the upright piano at the Celestial Saloon, begging Joplin to play it “one more time.”
“Show-pan” may be the king of romantic period pieces. But there’s nothing more romantic than The Entertainer. It’s sophisticated yet accessible — the most playful song on my list.
7. Beethoven: Sonata No. 8: Second Movement
My second favorite Beethoven sonata ever, the second movement of Sonata no. 8 is great because it takes on so many different moods. At the same time, it never fails to return the listener to the soothing refrain.
You always know where the song is going and how to follow it. But it still surprises around a corner here and there.
Overall, the piece is powerful without being overbearing. Intricate without being exhausting. In other words, classic Beethoven.
6. Mozart: Sonata No. 11, sans menuetto
It’s always been hard for me to enjoy complete classical compositions. In modern times, it’s also pretentious. After all, most of these pieces are long and were never intended to be played in the background or situational, as music often is today.
That said, almost all of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 is magnificent. I say almost because I find the penultimate movement, Menuetto, to be a bit boring (and thus have left it out). But the rest—from theme to variations I-VI and the block-rocking Turkish March ending (the one you know and love)—will make you feel like royalty.
Royalty, I say!
(Disclosure: Mozart is my favorite composer.)