Sheet Music Review
Here’s a book that I suspect many will rush to buy – a bumper collection of easy piano arrangements of great popular tunes, from the contemporary to the classic.
With (according to the cover) over 90,000 units sold, the hits that make up this “Ultimate Songlist” plunder the charts across many decades, from Cilla Black to One Direction, from Nat King Cole to Elbow, and from Wham! to Radiohead. Movies are well represented too, with The Hanging Tree (from The Hunger Games series) and Let it Go! (from Frozen) standing out as welcome highlights.
In theory there should be something here for everyone, and in practice … there probably is!
Of course any collection of this kind can be “miss” as much as “hit”, and I suspect that the best market for this collection will be families that want to gather around the piano for a sing-song, or which have more than one player in them, and from different age groups.
But you can see the full track list here for yourself, and make up your mind whether it appeals to you.
Popular songs are often presented in standard “PVG” (piano/vocal/guitar) format, with a separate vocal line, chord symbols, and two-stave piano accompaniment. For the solo pianists who wants to play the songs without singing, this poses the problem that the main tune is often not included in the piano part.
This collection takes the alternative approach – the piano part itself is complete, with the full melody included. There is no separate vocal line, but the song lyrics are added between the two staves of the main piano part.
And the chord symbols appear above, but without guitar chord tablature. This is a compromise that allows maximum enjoyment for the solo pianist, without excluding other family and friends from joining in. I did spot very occasional errors in the chords, but they are few, and I am sure that most guitarists who try playing along will quickly spot and correct them.
I would also add that the inclusion of chord symbols allows the more advanced player – and encourages the more ambitious teacher – to explore ways of fleshing out the texture, building more advanced arrangements of their own.
Arranging popular songs for piano solo can be a challenging and risky business…
Challenging, because the original songs are often not keyboard-based:
- With guitar based songs, the main energy might be in the rhythm rather than the melody and harmony.
- Bass lines can be very repetitive (such as, in this collection, the rather unpianistic left hand of Elbow’s One Day Like This).
- What about vocal lines where the main interest is in the lyrics rather than the melody – can these translate into enjoyable piano tunes? (see for example David Guetta’s Dangerous)
- And the main tune may have timing derived from speech rhythms that are difficult to notate without complex syncopations and ties, so unsuitable for the less advanced players who are perhaps most keen to play the songs.
And risky, because if the arranger gets it wrong, an unsatisfactory arrangement will disappoint (or confuse) the player.
Faber’s arrangers have, in this context, done an admirable job.
Most of the songs presented here lie very nicely under the fingers, with few stretches or complex chords. Difficult rhythms are largely avoided, but without losing the essence of the songs themselves. This is partly due to the careful selection of material to include, and partly down to some clever arranging.
Altogether, this allows for a collection that includes plenty of variety, and will I am sure prove very popular with pianists at around Grade 2-3 level keen to play these songs.
The book itself has an eye-catching cover (see above), soft covers, and a stiff glued spine. There are 208 pages, and most of the songs inevitably include several page turns. I struggled somewhat with keeping the book open on the stand – it requires firm encouragement to stay flat, and a ring-bound presentation would surely have been better in that respect.
The notation is nicely engraved and well-spaced, though perhaps on the small side (my eye sight isn’t improving with age!). Some of the pieces contain a minimum amount of fingering, while many contain none. Slightly larger notation, and more attention to fingering would certainly help elementary players, who would seem to me to be the key target market.
Caveats aside, I am very impressed with Faber’s Ultimate Easy Piano Songlist. It is great to see them enter territory more often associated with IMP and Music Sales, and they have produced a publication which combines class with high enjoyment.
It is not easy to find well-thought out popular song arrangement for pianists at this level, and this publication is certainly one of the best attempts I have seen to do so. It deserves to be hugely successful.