The Eternal Appeal of Piano House

The piano has always been an integral part of house music. It’s the central element in countless dance floor classics. Here, Harold Heath looks back through the history of the piano in house, and speaks to some of the artists currently championing the sound.

17 min
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Mar 4, 2020
Harold Heath

As a kid, Marshall Jefferson loved Led Zeppelin. In his autobiography, Diary Of A DJ, Jefferson asserts that Led Zeppelin sped up the tapes on one of their albums so that they would appear to be virtuoso musicians who could effortlessly play complex music quickly. Following this belief, Jefferson — who’d never played an instrument in his life — set his sequencer to a crawling 40 beats per minute, allowing him to play piano parts for his seminal “Move Your Body,” and 34 years later, we’re still dancing to the awesome power of a fully operational house piano riff.

The surrounding production and beats may change and the tempo might vary, but house music producers have continually returned to the piano riff: a two-, three- or four-chord progression, played rhythmically and percussively, usually in the mid-range of the piano. Usually it’s euphoric, sometimes it’s dark, but it’s always emotive. When done well, a decent piano tune can attain anthem status. Singer-songwriter Rachel Row released “To Love You” on Running Back in 2019 with KiNK, a massive tune featuring a jubilant piano riff, old-school breaks and a warping bassline. “There is nothing else in music that gives you that uplifting feeling of happiness and freedom than a good piano chord progression. House music is the inheritor of disco music, which comes from R&B and gospel, where the piano has a leading role. If the guitar is associated with rock and blues music, brass instruments is jazz, and piano is house.”

The musical DNA of house music, and specifically its roots in disco, is key to the piano’s musical effectiveness. The earliest house productions continued and reinterpreted many aspects of older disco records. And when listening back to certain disco records, pre-echos of what would become the classic house music piano riff can clearly be heard.

Pioneering Philadelphia International Records (PIR) band MFSB were behind many pre-disco and early disco records, and, musically speaking, have a lot to answer for. Drummer Earl Young pioneered the disco beat — a 4/4 kick drum, snare on the second and fourth beat, hissing hi-hat in between — which became the house beat we’re still dancing to today. The other members of MFSB adapted to the increased tempo and complex Latin poly-rhythms of much of PIR’s output, tightening up their licks, each part rigidly uniform and precise so it could fit in the intricate arrangements. You can clearly hear early versions of staccato house piano chords on “Bad Luck” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes from 1973, which MFSB performed. Its insistent, stabbing, rhythmic, chord vamp style would be heard on many Chicago house records a decade and a half later.

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Recording artist and DJ Hifi Sean, himself no stranger to the power of the piano in dance music — check his “Testify” with Crystal Waters — neatly sums up the piano’s lineage in house. “Let’s be honest, it all comes from blues, soul and gospel vibes, which merged into disco, and then into disco’s revenge: house music.”

Many of the players who made up MFSB went on to record as The Ritchie Family and The Salsoul Orchestra, creating a back catalogue of pivotal and prescient musical moments. Many of their records are known as the basis of house records, and have been sampled (or downright copied) endlessly. “My Love Is Free” on Salsoul by Double Exposure is a great example. Listen from the 4:25 mark, and you’ll hear musical pre-echos of early house songs like Ten City’s “That’s The Way Love Is” and Phase II ’s “Reachin,” which would be recorded over a decade later.

Sweet D’s “Thank Ya” on Trax from ’86 shows the clear lineage between early piano house and disco. All the elements were in place: the 909 beats, a lonely, reverberated vocal, sampled orchestral stabs, and at centre stage, a piano riff lifted from Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 disco release “You Saved My Day.”

The piano also found a place in the New Jersey sound championed by Tony Humphries, resident DJ at Zanzibar in the ‘80s. Humphries played melodic, soulful, gospel-influenced records, and his decade of DJing at Zanzibar would define what would become known as garage, epitomised by records like Blaze’s “Can’t Win For Losin’’” and Phase II’s “Mystery (Of Love),” both from 1988.

No history of piano tunes would be complete without mentioning the 1987 Detroit anthem “Strings of Life” by Rhythim is Rhythim, featuring a piano line made of chord inversions so emotive that it experienced multiple rebirths over the years. Sampled in a clutch of hardcore/rave tracks like “Jailbreak” by Paradox in ‘89, “Tapes” by Ray Keith in ‘91, and by Altern8 with 1991’s “Evapor8,” it was reborn again in 2004 with a cover version by Soul Central — which itself was revived with a vocal version called “Strings of Life (Stronger On My Own)” the following year.

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Through the early years of house and its subsequent sub-genre splintering in the early ‘90s, the piano tune remained popular. The UK rave scene heartily embraced the piano break, either recycling riffs from older house records, or writing new ones before stapling sped-up breaks and sub-bass onto them. Manix’s (solo project of 4Hero’s Mark Clair) “Feel Real Good” from 1992 was one of the high points from this period, cheekily lifting from Sterling Void’s “I Don’t Wanna Go,” which had been released the previous year. Tim van de Meutter, better known as house artist Locked Groove, released a storming old-school style piano tune in 2019 called “Do Not Freak.” “I think a good piano progression is something a lot of people can relate to, and even though maybe the same progression has been done over and over again, it still has appeal,” he says. Indeed, some chord progressions possess so much voodoo they’re reused constantly. Both Outrage and Rockford Files released tracks in the mid-‘90s using the Sterling Void piano line.

The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw the Italians —inventors of the piano — providing some of the very finest piano anthems in dance music history. Acts like the FPI Project, Electric Choc, Soft House Company, Sueño Latino and A.S.H.A were churning out colossal anthems based around simple three or four chord piano riffs, as well as lesser-known, though equally gorgeous and understated records like Don Carlos’ “Alone Paradise,” Onirico’s “Stolen Moments” and “Emotions” by the 707 Boyz. Some of these releases took on an almost mystical quality, appearing only on mixtapes, pirate radio or at the rave, leaving listeners wanting more. “[A.S.H.A.’s “JJ Tribute”] was only on rare mixtapes and never on real vinyl,” Yousef recalls. “It went on to become a huge record. Not long after came “Just A Feeling” by Terrorize and then “Anthem” by N-Joi, and again, when [these tracks] first appeared, they were mythical. You would go to a midweek rave just to hope to hear one of them.”

By the mid-‘90s, piano tunes had gone mainstream, and releases like Juliet Roberts’ “Caught In The Middle” had the potential to become huge crossover hits. But by the middle of the decade, it began feeling like piano house had run its course. Then came records like DJ Dove’s swoon-inducing “Illusions,” the gorgeous “Le Voie Le Soleil” from Subliminal Cuts, and David Morales’ killer dub of UK pop act London Beat’s “Come Back,” reminding everyone just how good a piano house record could be.

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Terry Farley knows a thing or two about piano tunes. And the veteran UK DJ sees a clear connection between house music and much older genres. “I guess the piano dance chords go way back to rhythm & blues and Fats Domino, and the crew playing juke joints, then Jerry Lee Lewis and later into disco. There’s definitely a euphoric feeling about the piano drop, from Jerry’s “Chantilly Lace” to “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson.”

Fred Everything agrees, arguing that the piano’s euphoric nature translates across to wide audiences. “The piano is a universal instrument that resonates with everyone,” he says. There’s clearly some kind of synergy between the euphoria of the best house music parties and the unselfconscious jubilance of a good house piano track; perhaps here, the gospel roots of disco (via soul) are relevant too. But given the gospel background of several MFSB members, it shouldn’t be surprising that an element of gospel snuck into the disco sound. “The sound of piano house is very uplifting, it has definite roots in gospel music, so it’s easy to feel the rapture!” Fouk says.

The spirit of gospel was present in several strands of pre- and early house music. Frankie Knuckles thought of clubs as churches, and Chuck Roberts told us house music is a spiritual thing. Classics like Ce Ce Rogers’ “Someday” or Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land” are drenched in spirituality, and house music parties have long been attended by dedicated zealots who enter a near-spiritual euphoria and transcendence during the dance. Records that channel this feeling are often crossover hits that reach the pop charts, like “It’s Alright (I Feel It)” Masters At Work or Byron Stingily’s “Get Up,” both from 1997.

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Occasionally, certain songs come to change the way we think about specific genres, stretching their boundaries. Layo & Bushwacka’s “Love Story” from 2002 was one such track, updating the piano anthem for a new century by turning down the euphoria for a darker shade of delight, while producing a piano line so good it spawned a clutch of bootlegs and remixes.

The 2000s were extremely eventful in terms of electronic music. Electroclash, minimal, dubstep, disco-sample house, tech house, epic trance and grime were all at various stages of their development — some just coming to fruition, others over-ripening. And with so much going on in the mid 2000s, the piano tune’s popularity declined. There were exceptions, of course, like “Caramellas” by Aeroplane, which beautifully recalls the heyday of sophisticated Italian piano house.

However, towards the end of the decade, piano house seemed to again be on the rise, with Tony Lionni’s “Found A Place” and The Juan MacLean’s “Happy House” achieving anthem status. Eric Prydz and Maceo Plex both approached the piano tune from very different angles, producing very different results. Prydz scored a worldwide hit with his epic and accessible “Pjanoo,” and in contrast, Plex produced the dreamy “Vibe Your Love,” a track that gently placed heavily-reverberated piano chords on top of a tight bassline, tied hauntingly together with Stevie Wonder’s vocals.

With the 2010s came tracks like Tim Deluxe’s “Transformation” and Bassfort’s piano banger “Last Night,” further redefining the flavour and style of piano tunes, scoring big hits in the process. 2010 also saw Head High’s release on Power House, “It’s A Love Thing – Piano Invasion”, which uses a pair of perfectly-pitched piano chords to dramatically relieve the tension on what is otherwise a perfectly austere techno track. Techno, too, could sound sweet with a piano.

An alternative approach came again from South Africa’s Black Coffee, when in 2010 he placed the piano in an entirely lead role in his slinky vocal cut “Superman” featuring Bucie. Joy Orbison’s 2012 piano-laden “Ellipsis” stretched out the concept of a piano banger once again, with a rave-referencing sound complete with rubbery bass, relentless crispy drums and a resolutely old-school piano — almost incongruous in its futurist setting — creating a simultaneously nostalgic yet new-sounding track.

By 2013, Omar-S dropped his “The Shit Baby,” a track packed with piano riffs and jazzy keys, while UK producer Paul Woolford turned out a series of big, euphoric piano records, including his “Untitled (Call Out Your Name)” and “Forevermore,” his remix of “Sounds Good To Me” by Hanne Mjøen, “You Already Know” with Karen Harding, and 2017’s new-school yet old-school rave track “Brainstorm” as Special Request.

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Some 30 years after the piano first made its way into proto house, and piano house seems as strong as ever. Artists like Gerd Janson, Duke Dumont, The Black Madonna, DJ Koze, Ray Mang, Marquis Hawkes, Terrence Parker, Weiss, Honey Dijon, David Penn, Cody Currie, KiNK, and Laurent Garnier continue to release first-rate, original takes on the early template; if the piano fell out of favour towards the end of the ‘90s, it’s safe to say that we’re currently astride a high-quality peak.

From its roots in gospel, soul and disco, piano house has come a long way. And on that journey, piano tunes have provided generations of clubbers with many truly memorable dance floor moments.

Long may the piano tune reign.

Harold Heath is a freelance journalist and DJ living in Brighton. Follow him on Twitter.