When it comes to who to include in our top 10 best piano players in the world, I think you'll agree with who is included, both modern and a little less recent. That's a fairly objective decision to make. But it's the order of their ranking that you'll want to argue about.
Obviously the skill level matters, but you might judge a certain strength as more important than we did. Then there's modifiers like creativity that don't mean much on their own but give bonus points when a master pianist has it. If you want less of the classical genre, you'll enjoy our Best Keyboard Players in the World list.
Sticking to only ten is hard when there's so many greats, so we've included a handful of runners up and then a list of honorable mentions. So if you don't see your own top pick, just keep looking below. With that said, let's jump into the list of the best piano players in the world...
#10 - Lyle Mays
Associations: Pat Metheny Group
Lyle Mays always had a passion for music, especially when he began playing the piano. He's one of the greats who was influenced by other prominent musicians, such as the various works of Miles Davis. Mays taught himself to play the guitar (though piano remained his specialty) and began his musical career when he went on tour with Woody Herman’s jazz band.
As his career progressed, Mays met prominent musician Pat Metheny and formed the Pat Metheny Group. He was a key asset to the group, acting as their sound designer and core musical arranger, in which he was nominated for various Grammy’s as a result of his work.
Mays was known for his creativity and was especially prominent with jazz, as he often played the piano and the organ for Pat Metheny. Mays was even more passionate about classical music and was a composer for several notable works, such as “Twelve Days in the Shadow of a Miracle.”
Trivia Facts: Mays recorded audiobooks for children, read by prominent individuals such as Meryl Streep. He says his four interests in life are music, architecture, mathematics, and chess. He began learning improvisation early in life. He designed his own house, his sister's house, and his home studio as an amateur architect.
#9 - Martha Argerich
Associations: International Piano Academy Lake Como
Martha Argerich could be considered the next Beethoven, as she is one of the most prominent pianists ever to play. Argerich preferred being on stage with others instead of performing solo; therefore, she has been performing in a concerto format since the eighties.
She rose to fame in 1965 when she won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Poland and began recording her own material shortly after. Due to her influence in the field, Argerich helped various prominent pianists rise to fame, such as Ivo Pogorelic.
Argerich was not one for the spotlight, as she often avoided public appearances such as interviews; however, her sheer talent was all the publicity she needed, standing out during concertos and sonatas. She also derived attention by being the president and director of various academies and festivals.
Trivia Facts: Martha Argerich began playing the piano when she was eight years old and played the classic Mozart Piano Concerto in D Minor. She is a polyglot, meaning she speaks multiple languages. In 2002, a documentary called Martha Argerich, Evening Conversation was released about her life.
#8 - Glenn Gould
Associations: Peabody Mason Concerts
Glenn Gould’s approach to playing the piano was different from most, as he preferred to read and study piano instead of playing directly. He could often practice the piano mentally and could not comprehend why his fellow pianists needed to play every day.
Due to his prominence early on, many referred to him as a prodigy, as he was considered a brilliant pianist, even at a young age. Gould had various influences on his rhythm and sound, such as Arthur Schnabel and Rosalyn Tureck. He rejected most Romantic piano players like Chopin and Liszt while preferring Bach and Beethoven.
He was considered extremely creative, as his unique sound was created in his imagination, rather than reading chords. Gould would go down in history as one of the world’s most influential pianists, as he brought a renewed sense of wonder and class to the trade. He's definitely one of the best piano players, period, but certainly of the modern era.
Trivia Facts: Glenn Gould first performed the piano on stage at five for his family’s church choir. He performed flawlessly, and the crowd was surprised that such a young child could play so well. His music is on the NASA Voyager Golden Record. The Glenn Gould Foundation and The Glenn Gould School both now honor his legacy.
#7 - Leif Ove Andsnes
Associations: Risor Festival of Chamber Music
Known for his riveting performances of Edvard Grieg’s works, Leif Ove Andsnes has won acclaim for his performances at some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Andsnes has certainly made his mark in Norway, as he is the founding director of Norway’s Rosendal Chamber Music Festival.
After collaborating with the Beethoven’s Journey concerto, he gained recognition as an accomplished pianist and was invited to tour with various concertos. He began the 2020 concert season playing Grieg’s piano concerto and the Oslo Philharmonic orchestra.
Because of his unique sound and interesting approach, he was hailed by the New York Times as a “pianist of magisterial elegance, power, and insight.” Leif Ove Andsnes has been recognized as one of the most instrumental musicians of the modern era, gaining recognition for his various concertos throughout the world. He was also recognized for his unique style and unwavering passion for his craft.
Trivia Facts: Leif's idols include Dinu Lipatti, Geza Anda, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Sviatoslav Richter. He was the Music Director for the 2012 Ojai Music Festival. His awards are endless and include 6 Gramophone Awards, the Hindemith Prize Frankfurt, and the Gilmore Artist Award.
#6 - Claudio Arrau
Trivia Facts: Stern Conservatory of Berlin
If you are familiar with pianists, you will know when you hear Claudio Arrau. His unique tone has been described as having a thickness, orchestral, disembodied timbre, and very spellbinding. Many prominent musicians have recognized Arrau as having a unique sound not easily replicated by fellow pianists.
He was hailed as a virtuoso in the fine arts and was laser-focused on his musical career. He often did not stick to the script and added his own personal touches to his pieces, which was a hit at the various concertos he played throughout his career.
His passion for the piano continued into his later years, as he continued to draw massive crowds up until his last performance. His contributions include learning and recording piano concertos from all of the greats of the past. The Robert Schumann Society created the Arrau Medal in 1991 in honor of him, which has been awarded three times since.
Trivia Facts: It is well-known that Arrau was so serious about his musical career, he wouldn’t even leave his piano to eat unless brought to him. He was quoted saying, “all I wanted was music.” He's won countless awards between 1911 and 2012, including many of the most prestigious available.
#5 - Jon Batiste
Associations: Stay Human, Juilliard School
Jon Batiste debuted in 2007 in Amsterdam and has been captivating millions since. He tours regularly with his band “Stay Human” and makes appearances in the band on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” He has taken advantage of his musical prowess by helping those in need around the world. He has taken part in various charitable events by delivering the gift of music to those less fortunate.
His tone, style, and contribution to jazz music captivated his audiences and gained notoriety from his peers. Batiste even had an opportunity to perform at the 60th Grammy Awards with notable musicians such as Chuck Berry, Leon Bridges, and Gary Clark Jr.
Batiste was recognized as one of Forbes's “30 under 30” list of prominent musicians following these legendary performances. He received various other awards recognizing his contributions to jazz music and his charitable work throughout his career.
Trivia Facts: Batiste has released several EPs, such as his 2013 EP “Social Music,” which reached the top of the Billboard US Jazz charts for a month and remained one of his best works. He debuted at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam at the young age of 20.
#4 - Sviatoslav Richter
Associations: Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Sviatoslav Richter is by far one of the most significant pianists in history. He began his career in 1934 and used his artistic style to his advantage throughout his career. He was recognized for his talent and performed in several motion pictures that gained him notoriety throughout Russia. He performed in various significant venues throughout his career, such as Carnegie Hall in New York.
His dedication to his craft led to him learning various works from some of the most prominent composers, such as Brahm, Paganini, Debussy, Beethoven, and Handel. Richter believed that a professional pianist should study the composer and ensure they are performing exactly as intended.
Although Richter was an accomplished musician, he preferred to perform his work live and was not interested in studio recordings. However, the few recording sessions he participated in were taken seriously, as he would play until he was satisfied.
Trivia Facts: In 1960, he won a Grammy for “Best Classical Performance” and is considered one of his best works. He was also hailed as the “Doctor of Music” by the esteemed Oxford University. Among his awards are the Stalin Prize (1950), Grammy Award (1960), Lenin Prize (1961), and even having a minor planet named after him, 9014 Svyatorichter.
#3 - Alfred Brendel
Associations: Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Known for his beautiful interpretations of Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, and Mozart, Alfred Brendel was considered one of the greats. He played in various concertos throughout his career and became known for his interpretive coldness in recreating these works.
Brendel was considered one of the most prominent musicians of the 20th century, as he made his mark in the classical music industry. Like many prominent pianists, Brendel was self-taught and learned his love of piano at an early age. Just by raw skill gained over time, Brendel is one of the best piano players, period.
Brendel was a stickler for composers' work and recommended that all pianists follow their exact direction. He had great respect for composers and how they wanted their work to sound. Due to his famous renditions of classical pieces, Brendel significantly influenced other prominent pianists, such as Paul Lewis, Amandine Savary, Till Fellner, and Kit Armstrong.
Trivia Facts: Brendel was well-known for being self-taught; he was even quoted to have said that “A teacher can be too influential, being self-taught, I learned to distrust anything I hadn't figured out myself." His accolades are so prestigious that he's even an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
#2 - Dame Myra Hess
Associations: NBC Symphony Orchestra
Myra Hess gained fame through her unique sounds and rhythm. She played various concertos throughout her career and was not shy about being in the spotlight. She was heavily influenced by many prominent pianists, such as Clive Lythgoe and Richard and John Contiguglia.
Hess was best known for her work playing Mozart symphonies. These interpretations were often regarded as her best work and is what she is often remembered for. She also interpreted the works of Schuman, Beethoven, and Scarlatti.
Hess also mentored some prominent jazz musicians, such as Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, David Brubeck’s mother. Like many prominent pianists, Hess played in some of the world’s most legendary music halls and stunned many with her talent and unique sound.
Because she influenced piano and jazz, the Chicago Cultural Center performs concerts once weekly to honor her achievements and contributions to the world of music, called the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts. They've been streamed live on the radio and internet since 1977.
Trivia Facts: Hess was invited by a renowned conductor, Arthur Toscanini to play at the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York. During this performance, Hess beautifully interpreted Beethoven’s 3rd symphony. Arnold Bax wrote a piece in 1915 that is dedicated to her.
#1 - Murray Perahia
Associations: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Murray Perahia is best known for sharing his knowledge of the piano with others, as he was a prominent instructor at many prestigious universities. He was most appreciated for his work interpreting Mozart and often recorded with Sony Classical. He was also well respected for Beethoven's interpretations and recorded various concertos based on Beethoven’s work.
Because he was known for his ability to teach others his craft, he taught at several prestigious institutions, such as the Juilliard School, the Peabody Institute, and the International Piano Academy Lake Como. He was well respected by his peers and appreciated by his students.
Perahia is considered one of the most prominent living pianists and continues to share his craft with the world. He is the Jerusalem Music Center president and often returns to teach students his interpretations of various classical artists.
Trivia Facts: Perahia won three of the prestigious Grammy awards after being nominated eighteen times. His other awards and medals are endless, including the Gramophone Hall of Fame, the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize, the Wolf Prize in Arts, and more. He even had a species of bee named after him in 2016.
Runners Up: Who's Almost One of The Best Piano Players of All Time?
There's no fun in stopping at the top 10 when you might have chosen different players than we did. Plus there's so many more that deserve recognition. So here's 4 more runners up and then a bunch of honorable mentions below, so keep looking if you haven't seen your favorite pianist yet!
Associations: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Arthur Rubinstein was certainly one of the greats. His career began in the early 20th century when he began rubbing elbows with some of the world’s most prominent composers, such as Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas, and Jacques Thibaud.
Rubinstein had a great appreciation for Choppin and spent much of his career focused on the composer. As one of the premier Chopinists, he amazed many with his talent and made a lasting impact on the music industry.
He made various trips worldwide and visited nearly every continent, where crowds met him with great praise and encouragement. His tours to South America and Spain were exceptional. He gained an appreciation for various prominent composers, such as Enrique Granados, Isaac Albeniz, Manuel de Falla, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Throughout his career, he often preferred to play as a soloist. However, he did play various concertos with other prominent pianists, such as Henryk Szerymg, Jascha Heifetz, Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, and the famous string band, the Guarneri Quartet.
Trivia Facts: Rubenstein worked on a film about his life and career, titled Arthur Rubenstein - The Love of Life, which earned itself an academy award for Best Documentary Feature.
Associations: Franz Liszt Academy of Music
Franz Liszt remains one of the best concert pianists globally, as his artistic legacy is forever cemented in the music industry. As an esteemed concert pianist, Liszt received great praise wherever he visited.
After touring as a virtuoso, he soon developed a passion for composition. He went on to conduct various significant events, where he focused on the works of Beethoven, Palestrina, Mendelssohn, and Bach. He should honestly be one of the best piano players in the top list but hey, I'm only one person in the discussion.
Although there is not much evidence of how he sounded in the early 19th century, many records indicate that his ability to keep the music's tempo earned the most significant praise. Liszt was not one for adhering to a composer’s format, as he often added his own special touches to his performances.
What really made Liszt special was the amount of piano music that he composed throughout his career. Only about 50% of his performances were scores from other composers. Many prominent musicians consider Liszt the greatest pianist in the world.
Trivia Facts: Liszt was also involved with the composition of symphonic poems, which are music scores that are designed to tell a story, and were mostly focused on Romanticism. Him and his life have been portrayed in nearly a dozen films between 1935 and 1991 thus far.
Associations: London Symphony Orchestra
Perhaps Vladimir Horowitz was destined to become a pianist, as his mother was also a prominent pianist. He received lessons from his mother, who started his passion for music. He played in some of the world’s most prominent venues throughout his career, such as Carnegie Hall, where he played with composer Sir Thomas Beecham.
Horowitz had a special relationship with the audience at his shows, as he was well-known to engage his audience during his performances. He had a unique ability to turn a solo performance into an engaging concerto where everyone in attendance was involved.
Horowitz had a knack for teaching other prominent pianists the tricks of the trade, such as Nico Kaufmann, Byron Janis, Gary Graffman, Coleman Blumfield, Ronald Turini, Alexander Fiorillo, and Ivan Davis. He even brought a few of his students on stage with him as they progressed in the field.
Horowitz also made various recordings throughout his career with notable groups such as the NBC Symphony Orchestra and under esteemed composer Toscanini. He also recorded various concerts for Columbia Records and Sony Classical.
Trivia Facts: Horowitz had a documentary film about his life, called Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic, which highlighted his riveting career, focusing on his love for romanticism in his performances. Horowitz won 26 Grammy Awards in his lifetime (plus many others)!
Associations: Moscow Conservatory
Sergei Rachmaninoff was considered one of the best pianists to have ever performed due to his unique style and tone. His passion for vocals made him a hit with any crowd. His unique rhythmic style and composure entertained crowds worldwide.
His talent really shone through when playing complex pieces, as he never missed a note and maintained rhythm and precision throughout the entire performance. Many who heard Rachmaninoff play know he had a unique tone, which was especially prominent during his rabatos. Although he was an astute pianist, he also had a fine appreciation for vocals.
In this sense, he was very similar to Chopin, as he was precise with vocals, no matter how difficult they were. Rachmaninoff’s precise vocals and sheer attention to detail cemented his place in history as one of the best pianists to ever play.
Like many prominent pianists of his time, Rachmaninoff recorded various works on the piano. He even performed recordings at Thomas Edison’s recording studio in New York. His most notable recordings were Chopin’s “Funeral March Sonata” and Schumann’s “Carnaval.”
Trivia Facts: Rachmaninoff’s music lives on in many forms, as his renditions were used in various films, such as “Brief Encounter,” “Somewhere in Time,” “Groundhog Day,” “Shine,” and “Limitless.” It is said he had perfect memory and could memorize the most demanding and complex pieces in a matter of days.
Honorable Mentions for Best Piano Players in the World
It's impossible to not mention all of the other players that maybe should be in the list above or have a great chance of climbing the rankings over time. Piano is a popular instrument so you know there are a lot of candidates. Here's the next batch that deserve a shout out from throughout history and current climbers.
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
- Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
- Clara Schumann (1819-1896)
- Stephen Hough (b. 1961)
- Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942)
- Mitsuko Uchida (b. 1948)
- Lang Lang (b. 1982)
- John Ogdon (1937-1989)
We could truly talk about this forever. If you even slightly chose different attributes to rate them on, or rate the same ones differently, our entire list could rearrange in order or even the entire top 10 would be replaced with other piano players. That's what makes this such an intriguing conversation to have.
If you enjoyed this, you may have fun delving into another hugely popular stringed instrument with our list of the best guitarists of all time. It makes for another "hard to rate" list because there's so many qualified candidates. Thanks for sticking with us through this talk about the best piano players in the world!