There’s no more recognizable work than a piano sonata. From Chopin to Beethoven, piano sonatas are considered the most complete works for the instrument. Because there are so many piano sonatas, it’s tough to sort through everything.
Luckily I’ve done that for you! Here is a list of the top 10 best piano sonatas ever written! In this list, you’ll find a breakdown of each piano sonata, some background information, and some tips on how to play them.
1. Beethoven Moonlight Sonata Op. 27 No. 2
This list of the best piano sonatas would not be complete if I did not mention the “Moonlight” Sonata. This is perhaps one of Beethoven’s famous pieces ever written, although Fur Elise might have the slight edge.
The first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is quite easy to play and has one of the most familiar melodies in all of music. The piece begins in C sharp minor with the right hand playing broken triads in the second inversion. It’s a constant rhythmic ostinato that continues for the entirety of the piece.
The left-hand moves in octaves supporting the broken triads and melody in the right hand. The melody is in the form of a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note.
This syncopated rhythm is tricky to play because the bottom part of the right hand continues to play the broken triads. As the piece progresses, there are some short modulations to other key areas in the development section.
The rhythm remains a constant though. Eventually, the first movement reaches the recapitulation and then has a short Coda section to end the piece.
The Allegretto second movement has a playful character. It’s a minuetto and trio, so it features that contrasting section that’s more subdued. Both sections are both in D flat major which is not common in most arrangements. This section features a lot of octave movement, especially in the trio section.
The Presto agitato movement is one of the most famous piano sonata movements. It’s incredibly fast and features sudden shifts to loud and soft dynamics. The left hand requires a soft touch so that it contrasts well with the smooth connected line of the right hand.
This movement is also in sonata form, featuring an exposition, development, and recapitulation along with a Coda section.
2. Scarlatti Piano Sonata K380 L.23
Domenico wrote hundreds of piano sonatas, around 550 to be exact! Of those 550 piano sonatas, the K380 L.23 is one of his most recognized.
This piano sonata is a clear example of binary form, one of the most popular musical forms at the time.
Overall this is a really fun piece to play. It’s quite short at about 2 and a half minutes long. It has a Baroque style to it, and it’s a nice beginner piano sonata for an ambitious student.
This sonata is in E major and has a playful yet lyrical character throughout. The same motive of a dotted sixteenth note followed by a 32nd and eighth note is a constant throughout the piece in the right hand.
Occasionally the right-hand plays small collections of continuous sixteenth notes. There are also several uses of open fifths with trill markings on top.
While the left hand supports the right hand with quarter note triads and inversions, it does have some running passages of sixteenth notes. Many times the right and left hand play a copycat and call and answer role with one another.
This piano sonata has a clear developmental material section. The key now moves from E major to the dominant in B major. It pulls on the same motives found in the A section, most notably from the second theme. The left-hand features a pedal point B chord to support the melody here.
There are quite a few modulations that happen in this developmental section. It moves to C sharp minor, and then to B minor at one point. The piece eventually comes back to E major, cadencing on a pianissimo in the Coda section.
3. Rachmaninoff Piano Sonata No. 2
This piano sonata has one of the most intense openings ever. It starts off with a tumbling drop into the low B flat chord. Following that is a chaotic series of tremolo chords. The hands are almost fighting with one another, setting the mood for a Romantic-era piece rich in moods. Have a listen for yourself below!
This piece takes quite a bit of finesse and virtuosity to pull off effectively. There are three movements in total.
There are many passages where the dynamics abruptly rise and drop. There is also a great deal of focus on syncopated rhythms in the melody line. Many of the sections early on in the first movement of the piece have broken arpeggios.
The development section of the Allegro Agitato movement modulates a lot, providing a lot of tonal instability. In the recapitulation of that movement, the opening B flat minor material is restated. While there is some alternation between B flat major and minor, the Coda section gives a clear ending in B flat minor.
The middle movement is in E minor and features falling thirds throughout most of it. This entire movement is much more reserved than the first. Many times, the hands are playing at complete opposite ends of the piano. The spacing of the chords in the right hand is also quite large.
While the piano sonata starts off in B flat minor for the first movement, it finishes on a powerful B flat major chord in the last movement.
In addition to being one of the toughest piano sonatas in terms of technical requirements, it’s also a challenge from an interpretive standpoint. The pianist has to carefully listen for all of the intricate melodies, and how they pass between the fingers from hand to hand.
4. Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor
Chopin’s piano sonata is really popular for it’s March Funebre movement. This movement is often featured in cartoons, movies, and popular culture. It’s also been arranged for other instrumentation like orchestras and chamber ensembles.
In the March Funebre movement, the theme starts in B flat minor. The B flat minor repeats in the right while the left-hand alternates between B flat and G flat. This is the most recognizable part of the theme that’s featured.
If you continue to listen, you’ll discover a beautiful trio section. The trio section is in D flat major and has a more calming tone compared to the outer parts.
Going back to the first movement which is titled Grave, we have a piece that is in sonata form although with some augmentation. There’s an introduction section before the main theme enters with the right hand controlling the melody and the left hand in broken arpeggios.
The second theme is in D flat major and has a sostenuto marking. After the development and unusual recapitulation section, the movement ends in an intense Coda.
The Scherzo movement is slightly longer than the first, and it’s written in E flat minor. It has a mazurka-like character, featuring many eighth note octaves and ascending passages. The trio section is in G flat major, although the march-like approach remains. This movement ends on a picardy third in the relative major.
After the March Funebre movement, there is the Finale: Presto. It’s extremely short at just 2 minutes in length, and almost sounds unrelated to the rest of the piece. This part of the piece is chaotic, with the pianist tasked with playing triplets at a blazing tempo. This section of the sonata is entirely continuous until the very last B flat minor chord.
5. Beethoven “Pathetique” Sonata Op. 13 in C Minor
The Pathetique sonata starts off with a slow grave section. The powerful C minor chords help to set the overall tone for the piece. It then trails off briefly to E flat major for a tranquil melody before returning to the dominant of C minor.
After this short introduction, the main thematic material opens. The left hand is plays broken octaves that move up and down across the harmonic structure of the piece. The right-hand plays a series of 3rds that simply go up the harmonic minor version of the C minor scale.
This movement is also known for its hand crossing that occurs in the second theme. The left-hand crosses over the right playing chords while the right hand maintains the melody and plays decorative embellishments.
The most popular movement of this sonata is easily the second. It’s in A flat major which is the relative major of C minor. This movement is also widely heard in commercials, movies, and soap operas.
It features multiple themes and a Coda section. The last occurrence of the theme has triplet variations of the first.
The final movement is an Allegro tempo, but also a Rondo. The first two sections are in C minor and E flat major. The third section is in A flat major, and this is where the character of the movement becomes more subdued. The defining character of this movement is the continuous groupings of eighth notes.
6. Haydn Piano Sonata No. 47 in B Minor
A short 12 minute piano sonata that is perfect for beginners is this one. Composed in the 1770s, Haydn’s B minor Sonata has a familiar melody that uses the same three-note motive. The second theme reaches D major. In the second theme, both hands play a lot of broken melodies.
In the development section of this sonata starts in F sharp minor, but a few key areas are explored. The recapitulation is mostly the same, however, the second theme remains in B minor this time. It’s also played in a higher register which draws more attention to it.
The second movement is playful and light in character. It’s written in the parallel major in B. There are many passages of running sixteenth notes as well as grace notes to add syncopation.
The middle section returns to B minor but otherwise is quite simple and related to the second theme of the first movement.
The final movement is written in a quick Presto tempo. There’s a series of passages where the right hand is playing the same three notes up and down while the left-hand moves up in octaves along with the D major scale. The piece concludes with two B minor chords.
7. Mozart Piano Sonata K333 in B flat major
Mozarts K333 piano sonata is one of his most popular. It’s really simple to play and features all of the unique techniques that define Mozart’s music. After leaving B flat is travels to the dominant in F major for the second theme. As with most piano sonatas, the main theme returns, in the end, varied and with some additional cadential material.
The second movement is in E flat major with the second subject in B flat major. This movement has a free feeling to it, although the development relies heavily on motives from the exposition.
It’s also written at a much slower tempo in Andante cantabile. There’s also some variance in the recapitulation, notably of the second theme. There’s also a Coda to end the movement.
The last movement is the Allegretto grazioso. Some pianists play this movement very fast, however it should have a nice walking pace. It’s also in B flat major. Many of the transitional passages modulate across several key areas. It’s in Sonata-Rondo form, so the main theme keeps returning in between all of those episodes.
In general, this is just a fun piece to play. It’s not Mozart’s hardest piano sonata, but it does require a lot of due diligence in the note-heavy passages.
Harmonically it’s well structured, and the development sections are not as harmonically unstable as more rigorous piano sonatas. If you’re looking for something upbeat to play, this is definitely it.
8. Mozart K332 in F Major
The K332 in F Major piano sonata by Mozart is a popular piece for young pianists, especially the first movement. It has a really simple arrangement with the right hand taking over most of the melody duties. The left-hand plays broken triads. Structure wise, it follows sonata form to the last detail.
After the first theme is an interesting transition section that starts in D minor and modulates to C minor. This leads to the next another subject in C major that adds some new motives.
After the Allegro movement comes the Adagio. This movement is much more subdued and features plenty of ornamentation to keep it interesting. It’s in B flat major but also trails off to B flat minor.
A common occurrence throughout this movement is the blocked thirds in the right hand. It’s about 5 minutes long, and it’s a great way to set up for the exciting final movement.
The last movement is the most exciting one you’ll hear. While the texture of the piece is not overly complex, it is extremely difficult.
It starts with a big F major chord in the left hand followed by a flurry of sixteenth notes in the right hand. It forms a sequence and features a lot of chromaticism. This stays in place for most of the last movement.
Have a listen to the final movement of this Mozart piano sonata here.
9. Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata Op. 53 in C major
One of Beethoven’s longest piano sonatas is the “Waldstein Sonata”. It was composed in 1804. Both hands begin with a rhythmic ostinato in C major. The second theme comes in E major and has slower rhythmic pacing.
The 2nd movement of the Waldstein moves much more slowly. It’s actually an extensive introduction that leads right into the final movement. It’s in F major and keeps bringing back the dotted rhythmic melody.
The last movement is a Rondo. The left-hand crosses over the right hand in order to play the melody in the higher register.
Of all the movements, this is by far the most interesting, but also the most difficult. There are some tricky scale passages and sudden dynamic changes. One of the unique things about the last movement is the glissandos found at the end of the piece. They are actually octave glissandos, which make them quite tricky to play.
Not only is this piece fun to listen to, but it’s a fun projection for a skilled pianist.
10. Beethoven “Appassionata” Sonata Op. 57 in F Minor
The Appassionata is one of Beethoven’s most famous works. Not only that but its also one of the technically challenging piano sonatas that Beethoven ever wrote. It’s written in F minor and features three movements. The piece was composed in the early 1800s, but not published until 1807.
The Allegro assai movement is written in sonata-allegro form. It’s a quick moving sonata that is defined by arpeggio motives that move up and down.
The nature of this movement is quiet, but Beethoven employs some unique harmonic techniques. He uses a Neapolitan chord both in this movement and the final movement. Structurally the first movement has a really long Coda section.
What makes the second movement interesting is the set of variations. It’s full of embellishments of the melody in D flat major.
The last movement is extremely fast in a Presto tempo. It makes extensive use of the Neapolitan chord.
Rhythmically it’s very complex with the hands passing melody and accompaniments between one another. There’s a collection of syncopated rhythms, running sixteenth note passages, and various meter groupings.