From Mozart to Scott Storch: A Brief History of the Piano in Popular Music
From early classical to jazz and even hip-hop, the piano has been central to some of the world's most important musical developments. We look at the pianists, composers, and producers who paved the way.
by Matthew Unicomb
The piano is an incredible instrument with a rich history. From classical to jazz and even hip-hop, it's been central to some of the most influential, groundbreaking musical developments of all time.
We've rounded up some of these styles and outlined how they came about. Each falls under the umbrella of popular music, an imperfect term that generally refers to the music enjoyed by mass audiences with little or no musical training. It excludes region-specific folk music such as, say, sea shanties and so-called "art music."
This list spans centuries and continents, starting with the earliest orchestral music and ending with hip-hop. Naturally, songs from every style we mention are available to learn through flowkey. By learning them, you can dive deeper into and connect with this rich history.
1600s–1800s: The Great Classical Composers
The term classical can mean a few different things. It's used by listeners as a catchall term for what we consider orchestral music, which includes countless styles and famous composers. It also refers to a specific era of orchestral music between 1750 and 1820, which we'll outline later in this article.
Most music historians consider the Baroque period (1600–1750) the beginning of modern music, even though it wasn't played with what we now call a piano. Instead, composers like Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi used a harpsichord, which defined Baroque's distinctive, elaborate sound. Where the piano tone we know is created by hammers hitting strings, harpsichord strings are plucked. This meant that every note had the same volume, with no sustain.
After Baroque came Classical (1750–1820) and piano greats such as Mozart and Beethoven, who remain the most-performed composers of all time. In Classical, the piano replaced the harpsichord as composers tended toward simpler, more balanced melodies.
The industrial revolution brought with it the modern piano that you know—and the Romantic period (1800–early 1900s). The expanded eighty-eight-key range and powerful sustained tone allowed for the expression and emotion of Romantic music. While the Baroque and Classical eras focused on specific musical forms, with defined structures, Romantic music, which counts Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms among its most famous proponents, was more about conveying a feeling.
By the early 1900s, fresh music styles like jazz and blues had begun to emerge, leading to an explosion in piano-oriented music. This made the early twentieth century a jumble of subgenres, from Impressionism to post-Romanticism and Expressionism. More styles came after WWII, like neo-Romanticism, Experimentalism, and Minimalism. Central to some of those developments were piano composers like Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Steve Reich.
1930s: The Rise of Jazz and Blues
Established by Black musicians in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, jazz blended a range of styles into a sophisticated new genre that was like nothing else at the time. The piano was central to this groundbreaking sound. Now-legendary pianists like Art Tatum, Scott Joplin, and Teddy Wilson combined the instrument with offbeat rhythm patterns, polyrhythms, and call-and-response vocals. All of a sudden, improvising in the middle of a performance was common, as pianists played solos they made up on the spot.
Jazz came about during the era of prohibition in the US, which banned the sale of alcohol between 1920 and 1933. Hundreds of thousands of underground bars, or speakeasies, opened throughout the country. Inside, jazz was the soundtrack, leading many conservative Americans to view this distinctly Black style of music as immoral or decadent.
Mary Lou Williams mentored jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Credit: Creative Commons
From the 1930s to today, we've seen many iterations and variations on the original jazz sound. One was bebop, which emerged in the 1940s. The pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams was a driving force behind bebop, where fast tempo, improvisation, and complex harmonies blended with jazz's swing style. Though Williams was a beloved performer in her own right, she is also known for mentoring jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.
1950s: The Beginnings of Rock 'n' Roll
Unlike rock 'n' roll's guitar-led sound of today, the genre's earliest groups had either the piano or saxophone as the lead instrument. It wasn't until the mid to late fifties, years after the genre's arrival in the late forties, that these instruments were either replaced or supplemented by the electric guitar.
Early rock 'n' roll pioneers Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Johnnie "father of rock 'n' roll" Johnson ushered in this new era of music from behind a piano and microphone, which they used to woo crowds from Saint Louis to Sydney.
Eventually, superstars like The Beatles and Elvis Presley began to overshadow rock 'n' roll's originators, reworking the style into a new sound with a truly mainstream appeal. And while the piano featured less prominently as time went on, hits like "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis and "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" by The Beatles put the piano front and center, reminders of how our favorite instrument was key to rock 'n' roll's development.
1960s–1980s: The Piano Goes Mainstream in Rock
The 1960s introduced many of the superstar acts that remain famous today. Many fit under the umbrella of so-called "glam rock," which combined the sounds of classic rock with simpler song structures and colorful, out-there costumes and hairstyles.
A key figure was the English singer-songwriter Elton John, who began his musical career as a fifteen-year-old pianist in his local pub. Others include Journey, David Bowie, and Queen.
Across the following twenty years, only a small percentage of rock songs featured the piano, as it was replaced by electric guitar. But that didn't stop the likes of Elton John and Queen from putting the piano at the center of some of their most popular music. Decades later, piano riffs in songs like Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" (1974) and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975) remain instantly recognizable.
1980s: The Piano Meets Electronic Music
While producers were using the piano to make hip-hop, artists in the growing electronic music world were testing it out, too. In 1986, Chicago's Marshall Jefferson released "The House Music Anthem (Move Your Body)," which is widely considered the first-ever "piano house" track.
Since then, piano house has become a thriving subgenre in its own right—each year, the piano usually features in at least some of the year's most popular underground house records.
Away from the dance floor, experimental electronic musicians like Aphex Twin used the piano to craft a range of cutting-edge sounds. In fact, the most famous song from electronic music's biggest underground artist is a touching piano piece. But there's one catch: the song was written by a computer.
Late 1980s and Beyond: Hip-Hop Uses Samples to Bring a Fresh Take on the Piano
With hip-hop, the world welcomed a new genre that relied primarily on samples, setting it apart from many earlier styles. Early hip-hop producers sampled classic soul, funk, and jazz, flipping snippets of piano melodies into completely new music. Classic New York beat-makers like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and RZA were especially fond of the piano throughout the nineties, putting it front and center in their most beloved productions.
But rather than the long, drawn-out melodies of rock music, producers would cut out just a few seconds of a track and loop it over slamming drumbeats. In hip-hop music, the original piano sample would sometimes be recognizable. Other times, it would be edited beyond recognition.
Then came Scott Storch, perhaps the most influential piano-playing producer. Storch composed what remain hip-hop's most recognizable piano melodies, many of which were coproductions with Dr. Dre, an early hip-hop pioneer. Unlike most producers, who would use a sample from, say, a soul record, as the first building blocks of their beats, Storch would play his initial sounds on a keyboard. Once he settled on the melody, it would be laced with drums and other samples and handed over to a rapper. This way of working led to a flurry of hits throughout the 2000s, most notably for Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, and Beyoncé.
Now It's Your Turn…
This is just some of the music the piano has shaped since its arrival more than three hundred years ago. In that time, our favorite instrument has fascinated, excited, and hypnotized millions of people around the world.
Whether it was the soundtrack to wild late-night dancing at illegal New Orleans speakeasies or the sound of Europe's grandest concert halls, there's one thing we can all agree on: there's nothing quite like the piano.
By looking back at the history of this remarkable instrument, we get a sense of the immeasurable impact it's had on the trajectory of music. Whether your style of choice is hip-hop, jazz, rock 'n' roll, or something else, this rich history has never been easier to access.
By learning to play the music you love, you can reach out and touch these culture-defining sounds, getting closer to the songs that have likely been with you for most of your life.
Our music library has thousands of songs for every level of player, from beginner to pro. If you already enjoy listening to these songs, you're going to love the feeling that comes with playing them. To get started, open flowkey now.
The first part of flowkey's guide to chords begins, as we untangle the theory behind inversions and explain concepts like the root note and root position.
How Long Does It Really Take to Learn the Piano?
Practicing the piano is something you can enjoy for a lifetime, but how long will it take until you can play your first song?
After Teaching Millions to Play the Piano, flowkey App Gets Attention from Tim Cook
When a young musician couldn’t find a good way to learn the piano online, he created an app of his own—flowkey. Years later, he was chosen to present it to Apple's CEO. Here’s the story of how it all happened.
Why You Don't Need Natural Talent To Be A Great Piano Player
Don’t believe what people say about being naturally talented – this is why anyone can learn to become a great piano player.