Question: what comes into your mind when you think of the idea of “piano music?” My wager is that a very high proportion of the techniques and musical elements that appear in your mind for this concept come directly out of Frederic Chopin’s unique style of playing and writing for the piano. And that’s why I think of Chopin as essentially the inventor of modern piano music. To explain what I mean, I need to consider first the instrument itself.


The modern piano, besides being a great testament to mechanical and acoustic ingenuity, is really the embodiment of several musical ideas and purposes. As a visual representation of the world of pitch possibilities, for instance, the piano’s keyboard is the most intuitive tool ever invented for music theory and composition (looming large in classical music, but also powerful in many other world music traditions). Combining that keyboard with a uniform tone color and crystal-clear articulation up and down an exceptionally large range of pitches – not to mention a sound that seems to permeate any space, even when played very softly, and grabs your attention in a fully visceral way – this gives you a recipe for the modern piano as an indispensable tool for composers, conductors, and music teachers all over the world. 

This function of the piano as a distiller and simulator of what might otherwise be a fully orchestral musical picture (but in this instrument gets packaged into a single, beautiful wooden box), has been the primary conception around which music has mostly been written for the piano throughout its (and its ancestors’) centuries-long evolution. Even when writing for a solo keyboard instrument, most historical composers were writing in terms of musical ideas that “belonged” to other instruments, so to speak. As an example of this sort of conception for piano music, I think of my own experience of my piano teachers often pointing out things like “here’s where the horns do their hunting call, which you’re going to play in your left hand, and then you imagine the violins answering with this lyrical melody in your right hand.” (Example: Go to timestamp 1:01 in the example below). Those sorts of descriptions memorably made Mozart’s piano sonatas, for instance, come to full musical life in my imagination, and allowed me to really get what those historical styles were all about. 

So the defining context of music written for the piano (and harpsichord and organ before the piano was invented), just about up until the 1830s, wasn’t so much about the idiosyncratic qualities of the instrument itself and the unique musical effects it can create, although many incremental innovations in that direction were an important part of the legacies of all the old big names in piano music (Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, to name a few). But then came a flashpoint in the history of the piano: the music of Frederic Chopin. Although Chopin obviously wasn’t working in a vacuum, and it wasn’t a single-handed sort of thing, his music, more boldly and effectively than anyone else’s, shifted the conception of music written for the piano into its own thing, its own unique expressive world not easily translatable to other instruments. 

Most pitched instruments (and the music written for them), at their core aspire to sing as flexibly and expressively as the human voice, and in one way or another most of them are designed to try to imitate the human capacity to sustain a pitch (and ideally to even able to change the volume of sound while sustaining a single note). That sustaining ability is generally a defining and necessary feature to how we use our voices in expressive ways (both for talking and singing). But sustain is exactly the piano’s biggest limitation when it aspires to sing like the human voice. Any note played on the piano cannot really be sustained at all, because the piano is a percussion instrument. It makes sound by a hammer striking a string, and the best it can do is create the illusion of singing, through a combination of: 1) the design of melodies themselves, 2) the infinitesimally subtle adjustments in timing and loudness for successive notes that a proficient player can make, and 3) a few ingenious mechanisms in the piano that allows the player to control which notes keep ringing while other notes get muted. (Example: listen below)

Chopin’s way of getting around the piano’s limitations for trying to imitate human vocal capacities, was to compose and play music instead designed to sing uniquely like the piano, with its own expressive powers and techniques. Chopin’s writing style didn’t just expand the vocabulary of melodic ornaments, for instance; it turned ornaments themselves into poetic expressions, practically unique and indispensable turns of phrase, that no other instrument can really match. (Example: Go to timestamp 5:39 in the example below

His music turned the technique of arpeggio into a rhythmically supple world of harmonic color, capable of entrancing us into a variety of moods and emotions before a melody even begins. (Example: Listen below)

Chopin’s innovations to piano technique remind me of what Shakespeare did to the English language. Shakespeare coined so many metaphors and sayings that have become part of the fabric of the way we talk and write, so much so that we may sometimes be in danger of thinking of them as cliches. In that same way, the kind of piano playing that Chopin invented forms so much of every pianist’s toolkit today that we might at times take it for granted, as though this were just always the way you make music that ‘sounds like piano music.’ And even if Chopin hadn’t also been a genius composer, with the ability to create both small- and large-scale narrative arcs of the most compelling and poignant musical depth, his contribution to piano technique alone would make him worthy of a prominent place in music history.

Indeed, once you start looking for Chopin-isms, they pop up all over piano music across many different genres. As a little experiment I tried just typing the words ‘piano music’ into a few different music streaming platforms, and in the lists of selections that those streaming services suggested, I consistently found that about seven out of ten tracks were either music written by Chopin or music that made heavy use of those very pianistic techniques and textures that Chopin first brought to their highest artistic levels.

So although it may be a bit of a strained analogy, when I think about Frederic Chopin’s contribution to the world of piano music, I can’t help but be reminded of a famous quip by the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, about the most influential writer in his domain: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” I think it’s only a small exaggeration to say that modern piano music consists largely of footnotes to Chopin.

Learn more about the life and music of Chopin

Filed under: Frédéric Chopin, Piano

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