A Brief History of Piano Accompaniment

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX



You might have noticed the persistent presence of a pianist in instrumental and vocal solo performances. These musicians, or accompanists, are responsible for playing the other half (or sometimes more) of the sounds that the audience hears. One might wonder, from where did the tradition of “serious” music requiring a piano voice originate? 

The Tradition of Piano Accompaniment

For centuries, the majority of famous composers have also been talented pianists. It was not uncommon for the greats, like Haydn or Beethoven, to perform their own works in concert or conduct the ensemble from the piano bench. This idea that “good musician” is synonymous with “good pianist” is so present still in the musical world, that the majority of music majors are required to spend multiple years learning the instrument. Currently, the term “accompanist” is used to refer to the pianist who plays alongside a soloist in a performance. These musicians are specially trained to follow the lead of the other individual on stage and are required to learn an immense amount of repertoire annually.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the idea of musical accompaniment can be traced back to the medieval music, when instruments were used to produce a drone or rhythmic pattern underneath vocal parts. Near the end of the 16th century, composers began to write more complicated instrumental accompaniments to songs that utilized changing chordal structures and counterpoint. This is most noticeable in music of the French Court, or air de cours, in which songs in strophic form were written for one or two voices accompanied by a lute or harpsichord. At the turn of the 17th century, European composers had adopted the idea of basso continuo, or improvised harmonic accompaniment performed by a harpsichord or organ underneath a solo voice. As genres like solo sonatas and the German lied continued to rise in popularity, keyboard parts became increasingly demanding and required pianists with mastery of “ornamental and contrapuntal invention.” This new tradition was referred to as “obbligato accompaniment” and has been observed well into the 21st century as piano accompaniments quickly “acquired the status of a concerted part.” 

Equal Recognition for Pianists

Despite putting forth equal (or at times, greater) efforts in rehearsals and performances, accompanists have historically received significantly lower fees than the soloist and infinitesimal recognition for their music. Elana Estrin, of The Strad, describes the hurtful practice of assuming these musicians are “hired” hands whose singular role is to “obey their musical partner’s instructions without question.” She cites famous violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who points out that much of the staple repertoire “is written for piano” by famous pianists (like Beethoven or Mozart); if anyone should come second, it is the soloist. Over the last century, there has been a social movement to change the perception of these pianists from “inferior assistants” to accomplished musicians deserving of respect. Towards this aim, Samuel Sanders, a Grammy-winning pianist in the late 1900’s, coined the term “collaborative pianist” to imply a more equal relationship between the musicians on the stage (Estrin).

What Does a Degree in Collaborative Piano Entail?

Degree programs in collaborative piano were first offered by the University of Southern California in 1947, followed by a Master’s program at the Julliard School in 1963 (Estrin). Worldwide, there are now more than one hundred institutions who offer a degree in collaborative piano (Estrin). Students aspiring to earn this degree must complete multiple courses of study relating to advanced music theory, pedagogical studies, and musicology. 

          Sample Degree Plans:

          College of Music, University of Colorado at Boulder

          Moores School of Music, University of Houston, TX





“There is no such thing as a piano accompanist.” Estrin, Elana. The Strad. The Strad. 1 July 2014.

          Web. 20 January, 2018. <https://www.thestrad.com/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-piano-



“Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music.” Service, Tom. The Guardian. Guardian News and

          Media Limited. 4 March, 2012. Web. 20 January, 2018.




“Samuel Sanders.” Adelson, Robert. All Music. All Music. Rhythm One Group. 2017. Web. 20

          January, 2018. <https://www.allmusic.com/artist/samuel-sanders-



“Accompaniment.” Editors of Ecyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Enclyclopaedia

          Britannica, Inc. 12 September, 2011. Web. 21 January, 2018.



“Air de cour.” Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopeadia

          Britannica, Inc. 1 June, 2016. Web. 21 January, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/art/air-de-