Can a Classical Pianist Play Popular Music?

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This is Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Store, with a question: “Can a Classical Pianist Play Popular Music?” If any of you have seen accomplished concert pianists playing Beethoven, Liszt, and Ravel, and you think, “Oh man, they can play anything!” Is that true? There’s an interesting story of a time when my father had a party in his studio, and he asked one of his former students, a Julliard graduate in piano performance, to play, “Happy Birthday”, and she couldn’t do it! She didn’t know how to even begin to play the simplest music by ear. So, the conservatories are really good at training people to be concert pianists and even collaborative pianists playing with other musicians, being able to read music, being able to perform at a high level, but not so much how to play other styles of music.

Consider this: If a classical pianist got engaged to play an event, and they wanted a bunch of popular music, certainly they could go out and get all the sheet music and be able to play it. Right? Well, yes. However, if you’ve ever played sheet music, you know the limitations and the shortcomings of sheet music. Sheet music is not something that the composers of popular songs wrote and then performed. The sheet music came afterward. And the people who wrote the songs aren’t even the ones who wrote the sheet music! They just try to monetize the music as soon as they can to get it out there.

Making it even tougher is the fact that the sheet music is a catch-all for everyone. In other words, if somebody wants to play it as a piano piece, they can do it. If they want to play it as a song, singing along with the piano part, they can do that. And they even have the chord symbols and sometimes even the guitar tablature to help all different sorts of people play the songs.

Sheet music attempts to be all things to all people.

But if you were to play, note for note, the sheet music, a lot of times, it can be extremely cumbersome because it’s not something that anybody necessarily played before. So in order to make sheet music sound good, a lot of times you have to rearrange it. So, if somebody has never done that before, they may have a hard time. Plus, a great deal of popular music is groove-oriented in a way that classical music rarely is. And if somebody has never played rock, blues and other styles like that, they may sound rather bland trying to play popular songs from sheet music.

So, a well-trained pianist should be able to play anything, but they would have a very tough time being able to assimilate in a rock band or a country band if they’d never done that before. Even people who go for post-graduate piano performance degrees don’t necessarily know how to do the simplest things, like play “Happy Birthday” by ear!

So, if you have an engagement and you want a pianist, you could certainly call upon a classical pianist. But ask them if they’ve ever done anything like that before. And listen to what they can do with the music. Depending upon the nature of the music you have in mind, they may be able to do handle the music on a greater or lesser level. And you could find that out before any important engagements that you have classical pianists coming in for.

I encourage all of you with a classical backgrounds to get your feet wet playing popular idioms!

You’ll enjoy it and it may open up new vistas for you musically. Not only that but if you get adept at playing by ear, it can save your neck when you’re playing a classical performance. If you find yourself over the wrong keys, if you have a momentary memory slip, playing by ears can get you back on track in a snap if you’re good at playing by ear! So it has many benefits for you, and not the least of which is enjoying other styles of music. So go for it!

Thanks for the great questions. Again, I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Store.