Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Pitch range

This is the pitch range of most pianos, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The piano is such an amazing instrument by itself, it hardly needs an orchestra.

The best thing about a piano is that it can sound as many notes simultaneously as you can manage to press at once.

‘Pianoforte’, the piano’s full name, means ‘soft-loud’: the piano was the first keyboard instrument that could be played very quietly or very loudly – and everything in between. Older pianos were often called ‘fortepiano’.

In many homes, the piano is part of the furniture. A piano is nice to look at as well as to play.

It doesn’t have a naturally beautiful sound, like the violin or the cello, but the best players can make it sound beautiful.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was a gifted pianist. When he was a teenager he discovered that if he played a chord on a piano in one room, it would echo on a piano in another room. He realised that whole chords could be sent through the air, vibrating at exactly the same pitch. This was the beginning of his path to inventing the telephone…

There are good things and bad things about being a pianist:

Good: Pianists don’t have to tune their own instrument. Other players have to tune their instruments at the beginning of every concert (and sometimes in the middle too!). But a piano is so heavy and complicated it needs an expert tuner. The piano is just wheeled on and sits there waiting for the pianist.

Bad: Pianists can’t bring their own piano to a concert. Pianos are too big and heavy to be carried around. So instead of the piano they know and love, pianists have to put up with all kinds of different ones. And it’s no good blaming a bad performance on the piano – because the audience won’t!

Piano music

The piano is found in different kinds of music:

Concertos: Stacks of these, from Mozart onwards – the grand piano is placed in front of the orchestra and all eyes are on the pianist.

Chamber music: There are many pieces for small groups with piano. It’s also used to accompany one other instrument – such as the violin, the clarinet or the flute – in sonatas and other pieces.

Solo pieces: Masses of these for pianists. Just about anyone who’s anyone has written music for the piano! Chopin was an expert and always wrote for it.

Jazz: The piano is very at home in the whimsical world of jazz, too, ready for fast, twiddly pieces or slow, moody ones.

Pop music: Electric pianos are sometimes used here.

Orchestra: the piano isn’t a regular member of the orchestra, but appears when certain pieces ask for it. It’s actually treated a bit like a percussion instrument in orchestral pieces: it often has bouncy, occasional bursts of notes that add to the overall sound.

Construction of the piano

The piano is basically a string instrument with a keyboard.

The body of a piano is made from thick wood. Concert grands are normally black, but uprights can be all shades of wood. Electric pianos, used in pop music, are sometimes white.

From left to right: Keys, Hammers, Soundboard (beneath the strings), courtesy of iStock (keys and soundboard); Yamaha (hammers)

From left to right: Keys, Hammers, Soundboard (beneath the strings)

The keys used to be made of ivory, but now they’re made of special plastic. The bottom row is always white, and the top row is always black.

A piano keyboard usually has 88 keys – over seven octaves.

The strings are made of steel, and the little wooden hammers that hit them are covered with felt. A wooden ‘jack’ connects the key to the hammer.

In a harpsichord, the strings are plucked by quills. But in a piano, the sound is stronger and more varied because the strings are hit by little hammers. An Italian called Cristofori invented this mechanism at the end of the 17th century – and it was a breakthrough.

Underneath the strings there is a ‘soundboard’. This is a large, thin sheet of wood that amplifies the sound of the strings. You’d hardly hear them without this. It’s sometimes called the ‘soul’ or ‘voice’ of the piano.

The wood used for the piano’s soundboard is often spruce – the same as for the front of a violin. Spruce is good at making the sound richer and warmer.

A grand piano can weigh over 500 kilograms (more than half a ton).


There are at least two metal pedals on a piano, sometimes three.

From left to right: Soft pedal, Sostenuto pedal, Sustaining pedal, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

From left to right: Soft pedal, Sostenuto pedal, Sustaining pedal

1. Soft pedal (on the left)

On a grand piano, this moves the hammers sideways so that only one string per note (rather than the normal two or three) is hit by each hammer. On an upright piano, the soft pedal makes the hammers move closer to the strings, so they don’t take such a big swing and hit them so hard. Either way, it gives a softer, more muffled sound.

2. Sostenuto pedal (in the middle)

This allows you to keep some notes sounding while you continue to pedal others in the normal way.

3. Sustaining pedal (on the right)

This takes the ‘dampers’ away from the strings. It means that the strings continue to vibrate and the sound goes on for a long time.

Grand piano, courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

Grand piano

The imaginative American composer John Cage used to attach all kinds of bits to the strings of the piano, like rubber bands and nails, to make it sound like a weird percussion instrument. It’s called ‘prepared piano’ and he wrote lots of pieces for it.

The strings inside a ‘baby’ grand piano, courtesy of iStock

The strings inside a ‘baby’ grand piano

Different pianos

There are three main types of piano today:

Grand pianos

These can be ‘baby’ grands or ‘concert’ grands, or several sizes in between. For these, the body is wing-shaped and the strings run horizontally.

Full-sized concert grand pianos are about 2.5 metres (9 feet) long.

Upright pianos
Upright piano, courtesy of Yamaha

Upright piano

Upright pianos are smaller, and often seen in people’s homes as well as schools and community halls. They’re more compact because the strings run vertically. It’s like saving space by building blocks of flats that go up high, instead of lots of houses that take up more land.

Digital piano

Digital piano

Digital pianos

Digital pianos use electricity to work. They’re smaller and cheaper, so they sometimes suit beginners. And you can use headphones with them, so people with neighbours nearby find them useful for practising! But a digital piano isn’t a rival for the rich sound of a ‘real’ piano.

Hands on the keys of the piano, courtesy of iStock

Hands on the keys of the piano

To play it

You sit on a stool in front of the keyboard and press the keys.

  1. When you press the front of a key on the keyboard, the back of it (which you can’t see when you’re playing) goes up.
  2. The back of the key is connected to a wooden ‘jack’, and the jack flicks upwards.
  3. This makes the hammer move towards the string.
  4. The ‘damper’, covered in felt, moves away from the string.
  5. The hammer hits the string.
  6. When you take your finger off the key, the damper goes back to rest on the string and stop it vibrating.

Courtesy of Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins

To be a good pianist, you need strong, muscular fingers.

A pianist in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

A pianist in playing position

People often think that to play the piano more loudly you ‘hit’ the keys harder. This isn’t true! It’s actually the speed at which the keys go down that affects the volume. If a key is pressed quickly, it’s the hammer that will hit the string with more force and make a louder note come out. Hitting the keys produces a sound that isn’t so nice to listen to…

Find out more about the development of the Piano in .

A Little History of the Piano

The beginning

As the 17th century was coming to an end, the harpsichord was under threat. An Italian called Cristofori invented a keyboard instrument with little hammers that sprang up to hit the strings and sprang back down again. Compared with the harpsichord’s little twang when the quills plucked the strings, this was a breakthrough.

Most importantly, you could play it softly or loudly. With the harpsichord, you had one volume and that was all. Cristofori called the new instrument his harpsichord with ‘piano e forte’ (‘soft and loud’).

Older pianos often had the name ‘fortepiano’ rather than ‘pianoforte’.

Early pianos looked a bit like harpsichords. They were lightweight and the keyboard was half as big as it is today. Even the legs were dainty, like a harpsichord’s. But the hammer idea had spread to Germany and England, and many people were working on improvements…

Pianos started to come in all shapes and sizes. There was a ‘giraffe piano’, that reached up towards the ceiling. Not surprisingly, it didn’t catch on!

Square pianos

Pianos got better and better. In about 1760, England started making ‘square pianos’ (a strange name, since they were oblong!). But they still weren’t powerful enough. Composers were writing music with more volume and expression, and in big concert halls these little instruments were too weak to be heard.

Growing up

So in the 1800s, the piano started putting on weight. It got its heavy iron frame and a bigger keyboard.

In 1821, Sébastian Érard came up with the ‘double escapement’ action. It meant that you could repeat notes really fast, because the little hammers could go back up to hit the string before they’d come all the way down from the last time.

The criss-crossing strings inside the piano

The criss-crossing strings inside the piano


Then, another Frenchman had another brainwave: ‘overstringing’. If the bass strings are longer, the sound is much better. But how do you fit in longer strings without making the body of the piano any bigger? Answer: diagonally! The bass strings criss-cross with the higher strings.

The best place for the hammer to strike a string was found to be a ninth of the way up it.


Famous piano makers were established, like Broadwood in London, Érard in France, Bechstein in Germany, and Steinway in the US.


Since it took over from the harpsichord, the piano has been one of the most popular instruments. Today it is played all over the world.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What is the piano’s full name?

a. Pianomezzo
b. Pianoforte
c. Pianola

 What hits the strings of the piano?

a. Hammers
b. Robots
c. Beaters

 Which composer focussed almost exclusively on the piano?

a. Beethoven
b. Chopin
c. Schubert

 What can happen on a piano but not on any other instrument?

a. Singing and playing at the same time
b. A game of cards
c. Two people playing it at once

 What is the biggest kind of piano called – the one seen on stage at a concert?

a. Upright piano
b. Grand piano
c. Great piano

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Piano Extracts

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
The Carnival of the Animals: I. Introduction

The piano helps to set the scene and introduce the whole carnival!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Ballade in G minor, Op. 118 No. 3 (extract)

The piano with strength and passion.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550354

Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11: II. Romanza: Larghetto (extract)

Chopin knew how to make the piano sound beautiful.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano; Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra; Robert Stankovsky

Taken from Naxos 8.550368

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, ‘Waldstein’: I. Allegro con brio (extract)

Breathless excitement from Beethoven: the pianist’s fingers have to move very fast!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550294

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, D. 667, ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’): IV. Theme with Variations (extract)

Here the piano sounds dancing and happy with its string-family friends in Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Kodály Quartet; István Tóth, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.550658

John Cage (1912–1992)
The Perilous Night (extract)

This is ‘prepared piano’ – a piano with bits put on its strings, making it sound more like percussion.

Performers: Boris Berman, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559070

Solo Piano

Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Keyboard Sonata in A major, K. 500 / L. 492 / P. 358: Allegro

Domenico Scarlatti wrote over 550 ‘keyboard sonatas’. Originally these would have been played on a harpsichord or a fortepiano (a very early version of the piano). Today, though, we often hear them on the modern piano – and the incredible thing is that they sound so fresh and inventive. There are twists and turns in the music that give it a unique flavour. Can you hear how there are sometimes two ‘voices’ in this piece? So at the beginning, you hear a motif – a little collection of notes – which is then repeated an octave higher, as if the first ‘voice’ is being echoed by a second one.

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554842

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310

With all the drama of an opera, this sonata bursts into life – the left hand hammers chords underneath the tune like a motor, driving the music forwards. Mozart had a natural sense of music’s power, even when writing for just one instrument. At 0.08 it sounds as if things might become happier, but then we’re plunged back into the urgency of the beginning again. The whole movement is like this – the right hand (and sometimes the left) is full of fast notes, taking us helter skelter through light places and dark places. Mozart composed this sonata in 1778 in Paris.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550445

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
12 Transcendental Études, S139/R2b

The best players of an instrument like to be challenged sometimes. Like a mountain-climber reaching the top of a big mountain, a pianist can feel the satisfaction of mastering really difficult music. Liszt’s set of études (studies) is one of those mountains! But while giving a pianist technical practice, they’re still great music. You can see that they have titles: can you imagine the rockets when you listen to track 2; or the light, darting will o’ the wisp in No. 5?

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553119

Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Fantasy-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66

Chopin was a brilliant pianist who wrote almost nothing except piano music. It is full of flowing melodies, twinkling trills, and meaty chords that use many notes across the keyboard. Listen to the right hand’s cascades of notes at the top, supported by the left hand. This is a piece full of excitement and passion. At 1.03 it becomes suddenly tender, slower, and more innocent… but at 3.00 we’re back to the exhilarating, fiery rush of notes. Just imagine how skilled you have to be to play this music – to make sure that your fingers land on all the right notes at the right time with the right pressure to make them loud or soft. This is not done by a computer. Human beings are incredible!

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550291

Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Waltz No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1, ‘Minute’

Chopin’s famous ‘Minute’ Waltz actually lasts for nearly a minute and three quarters. Chopin didn’t intend for it to be a minute in length: the nickname was supposed to mean ‘miniature’ – small (i.e. pronounced ‘my-newt’) – rather than 60 seconds! But some pianists still feel there is a challenge to play the piece really fast. Its infectious energy is almost funny.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550291

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Kinderszenen (‘Scenes of Childhood’), Op. 15

Schumann was a master of writing works made up of several short pieces that are varied and appealing. Here, the titles give an idea of what each one is about. They are supposed to suggest the kind of memories that an adult would have of childhood. As people get older, memories of the past can be quite powerful. Nos. 1 (‘Of Foreign Lands and Peoples’) and 7 (‘Dreaming’) are especially popular.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550784

Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Children’s Corner Suite

Debussy dedicated this delightful set of six pieces to his beloved daughter Claude-Emma. He called her ‘Chouchou’. She was only three at the time, so the pieces weren’t for her to play! But he perhaps thought of her as he was writing them; they are gentle and playful.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550885

Scott Joplin (1868–1917)
The Entertainer

Scott Joplin is famous for his piano ‘rags’. Ragtime was a style of music that appeared in America just before the 20th century. It uses syncopated rhythms ­– where the strong beats fall in unexpected places, giving a quirky kind of spring to the music. Syncopation happens a lot in jazz, which grew up just after ragtime. The Entertainer is one of Joplin’s most famous rags – it is lighthearted and ‘entertaining’! He wrote it in 1902. The right hand has the main tune (first heard at 0.08), which gently side-steps the regular rhythm of the left hand’s chords so that the notes fall in the gaps and give the piece its slightly cheeky character. This tune keeps coming back so you can listen out for it all the way through.

Performers: Alexander Peskanov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559114

John Tavener (1944–2013)

Piano pieces aren’t all about fast notes and fireworks. Sometimes the most entrancing music, on any instrument, is almost motionless. Tavener is known best for his choral works, but he did write several short piano pieces too. The mysterious Zodiacs was composed in 1997 and is dedicated to Tavener’s youngest daughter, Sofia. Like a lot of Tavener’s music, it almost seems as if it is hovering in the sky.

Performers: Ralph van Raat, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570442

Piano with Orchestra

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 (‘Emperor’)

This is probably Beethoven’s most popular piano concerto – and it was the last he wrote (between 1809 and 1811). The name ‘Emperor’ was given to it by the man who published the sheet music. The orchestra announces the piano, which blossoms like an enormous flower at the beginning. At 1.08, the orchestra really gets going, and the movement begins to flow with the kind of solid energy and confidence that is typical of Beethoven’s music. The concerto has one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written. Listen to this movement (track 2) and see if you can work out why it is so popular: why do some people love listening to it with their eyes closed? What does Beethoven do with the orchestra – which instruments does he use and what sort of shapes does he draw with the music? What about the piano – when it comes in at 1.30, does it enter with slow, lyrical music or thunder in with big chords? What about you: what do you like or dislike about the music?

Performers: Stefan Vladar, piano; Capella Istropolitana; Barry Wordsworth

Taken from Naxos 8.554676

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23

Somehow, the opening of this concerto has become a kind of monument or statue in classical music: four big French horn notes, then a big chord from the orchestra… and within 10 seconds the pianist blasts in, showing off the whole length of the keyboard with chords from bottom to top. Instead of giving a big tune to the piano, the solo instrument, Tchaikovsky gives it to the orchestra: the strings sweep along with it, and the piano chords act like a kind of drumbeat to go with it. It’s not long before the piano takes over though (0.48), using the melody we just heard, but taking it on a journey. Sometimes the piano dances (e.g. 4.07), along with the orchestra; sometimes it is gentle and questioning (e.g. 10.25); sometimes it shows off (e.g. 16.45); and sometimes it simply pours out from the heart (e.g. 0.44 in track 2). After the fireworks of the first movement, the second is so delicate. It begins with a fairy-like pizzicato (plucking) from the strings, then a melody from the flute. The piano takes over that melody. As usual in a concerto, the last movement is faster. It ends in a grand, exciting style. All that’s missing here is the applause!

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitry Yablonsky

Taken from Naxos 8.557257

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102

Shostakovich wrote this Piano Concerto for his son Maxim to play. It was a 19th birthday present. There is a fantastic energy in the whole thing, with the piano scampering over a rhythmic orchestra. A single bassoon starts things off by bouncing in at the beginning, introducing cheerful, characterful music. The slow middle movement (track 2) is simple yet somehow so beautiful it can make you cry – it’s a bit like the effect of the slow movement in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto (included above). It leads straight into a final movement where the piano part starts to run and jump around. This is a concerto that the pianist can have fun performing!

Performers: Michael Houston, piano; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Christopher Lyndon-Gee

Taken from Naxos 8.554677

George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Rhapsody in Blue

The very opening of this piece is instantly recognisable: an amazing solo for the clarinet, including a big glissando (slide). It sets the mood: relaxed, cool, jazzy and full of life. Rhapsody in Blue is like a fusion of jazz and classical music – a kind of piano concerto infused with jazz rhythms and sounds. It was written for the famous bandleader, Paul Whiteman, in 1924.

Performers: Kathryn Selby, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hayman

Taken from Naxos 8.550295

Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960)
Variations on a Nursery Song, Op. 25

‘Variations’ in music are when a composer takes a simple tune – a theme – and delivers it in several different versions. Sometimes the rhythm is different, sometimes the melody, sometimes the harmony, sometimes there are twiddles, trills, runs or leaps. But the original idea – the theme – is still there underneath, even if sometimes it’s difficult to spot it. It’s like dressing up in different costumes! There’s an introduction here, which sounds rather dark and serious… but then it moves into track 2 and things have completely changed. You could miss out the introduction and just begin listening at track 2: what is the tune? Originally called in French Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman, we know it in English as Twinkle, twinkle, little star. Here we get it from the piano, with a simple plucked accompaniment from the string instruments. From then on, each ‘variation’ puts a different costume on the tune. So track 3 (variation 1) gives us a fun, galloping version; track 4 a heavier-footed version in the orchestra, beginning with the horns, and so on. See how many times you can hear in your head that original tune behind the new music.

Performers: Eldar Nebolsin, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta

Taken from Naxos 8.572303


Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
Slavonic Dances Nos. 1–8, Op. 46, B. 78

The piano is the only instrument that is played by two people at once! From pieces that are quite simple and playable by children learning the piano, to those that really challenge both players, duets give huge pleasure to pianists. There is something great fun about sitting side by side at the same keyboard – all four hands covering the whole length and able to play some fantastically fat chords, full of notes! Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances are often heard played by an orchestra, but he first wrote them as piano duets. They vary in mood, but – as usual with Dvořák – lovely melodies pop up all the way through them.

Performers: Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553138

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
3 Marches militaires, Op. 51, D. 733

The first of Schubert’s Marches militaires is the most famous, and these duets – less difficult than some – are often heard performed by piano pupils. Schubert wrote them for two pupils of his own – sisters Marie and Caroline, who were daughters of Count Esterházy. He spent some time employed by the Count, teaching the two girls and providing musical entertainment at their country house in Zseliz during the summer months. With strong rhythms and a cheerful mood, the duets are attractive to listen to and fun to play.

Performers: Jenő Jandó and Zsuzsa Kollár, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553441

Gabriel Fauré (1835–1921)
Dolly Suite, Op. 56

Fauré wrote these piano duets for a little girl called Dolly, who was the daughter of his friend – they were birthday presents for her. The titles are not always clear: ‘Mi-a-ou’ is mimicking Dolly trying to pronounce her brother’s name, and ‘Kitty Waltz’ is not to do with a cat, but a dog – Dolly’s dog was actually called ‘Ketty’! Fauré must have found the little girl charming, because whether the pieces are slow or fast, loud or lively, they are always bright and warm.

Performers: Pierre-Alain Volondat and Patrick De Hooge, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553638

Chamber Music

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49

The piano goes well with any other instrument. It often ‘accompanies’ – providing support for the melodies of another instrument, and sometimes even sharing those melodies and acting as a kind of musical partner. There are also thousands of works for groups of instruments that include the piano. A ‘piano trio’ means violin, cello and piano. It is a popular combination, and this one by Mendelssohn is a shining example. As with a lot of Mendelssohn’s chamber music, it is joyful both for the players and the listeners. The cello starts off the melody at the beginning – but can you hear the piano bubbling underneath? The three instruments share the musical ideas equally. So at 1.00, it becomes very passionate and the piano has low notes in the bass, strengthening the cello’s tune; after that, it concentrates on filling out the sound behind the violin up high and the cello lower down; then at 1.28 the tune rings out from the right hand, taking over from the violin. The expressive slow movement (track 2) begins with the piano on its own: a beautiful, soulful, melody that is then taken up by the violin with cello supporting at 0.35. All the way through, the three instruments are like three great friends on holiday: what do you imagine they could be doing in track 3? Running on the beach? See what you think!

Performers: Gould Piano Trio

Taken from Naxos 8.555063

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44

Between 1841 and 1843 Schumann wrote some of his greatest chamber works. This quintet is possibly his greatest of all. He wrote it in just five days! It is half an hour long and brilliantly written for all five instruments (two violins, viola, cello, piano). The vitality of the music does somehow fit with a composer who was not struggling to express himself, but instead was totally inspired and couldn’t wait to get his thoughts down on paper. It flows. Its phrases pull you in, and tunes keep coming back so you can recognise them. Most of all, it is joyful. As you listen, think about the piano’s sound and what it brings to the group. Do you think you would notice if the piano stopped playing?

Performers: Kodály Quartet; Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550406


Sarah Jane Cion
The Safflower

Dreamily, the piano begins alone with music that sounds free and completely content. At 0.41, the drummer comes in softly, the drummer using brushes on the cymbal, and the bass (double bass) player is equally soft and sensitive, with a supportive pizzicato. The trio continues like this – and you can hear how sometimes the piano is the leader, and sometimes one of the other instruments comes out more. At 1.34, it is typical of improvised jazz on the piano (improvised means that it is made up as it goes along) – single notes, dancing fluidly around the rhythm of the other two players.

Performers: Sarah Jane Cion, piano; Phil Palombi, bass; Billy Hart, drums

Taken from Naxos 86071-2

Larry Karush (1946–2013)
Variations on a Theme by James P. Johnson

The pianist has taken a tune by an earlier jazz pianist – James P. Johnson – and is composing his own music around it. It’s like making up a story as you go along! Listen to the crunchy chords after 4.00 – he’s trying things out and expressing whatever he feels like. Jazz can be very liberating for musicians – they’re much freer than classical musicians, who have to follow exactly the dots on the page.

Performers: Larry Karush, piano

Taken from Naxos 86026-2