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The 14 most famous and influential female pianists of all time

Many things can make a great pianist, but often, the truest measure of greatness is the impact or influence a musician has on others. In this article, I’m looking at the most influential female pianists of all time.

The pianists on this list, past and present, have inspired and influenced countless pianists and composers worldwide and will continue to do so for many, many years.

About me

As a pianist and composer with over 20 years of experience, every musician on this list has influenced me in one way or another.

James Nugent, author and contributor at Higher Hz

I might not sound like anyone on this list, but studying these greats has impacted my decision-making and how I adapt certain techniques into my playing.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned early in my studies is the importance of having a unique voice, and these women continue to help me develop mine.

How I chose

A list of the most influential female pianists ever will always be subjective, and that’s something I can’t avoid. But I can ensure that every pianist I select is worthy of a place on the list by considering just a few things.

The first thing I look for from an influential pianist is a distinct voice. When I say distinct voice, I don’t mean someone who plays the same way every time; I mean someone with defining characteristics in their musicianship that are easily identified.

Examples of defining characteristics include virtuosic technique, specific chord voicings, compositional habits, etc.

I also consider the era in which each of these women exists and other prominent pianists of the time. Looking at other prominent pianists in any given generation gives a clearer understanding of the impact pianists on our list made on music.

For example, Clara Schumann was performing and composing when the likes of Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner were giants of classical music; the fact that she managed to stand out in that time (while arguably not getting all the credit she deserved) speaks volumes about her exceptional talent.

Another benefit of looking at specific eras is that you better understand the extent of each pianist’s influence. Some world-class pianists were stars of their time but didn’t necessarily have a significant impact on future generations.

So, I looked for pianists who are still studied long after they are gone or active pianists whose influence transcends multiple genres and generations. Some influence even transcends music, as evidenced by artists like Myra Hess and Nina Simone.

It’s also interesting to look at musicians who came before potential list nominees. You can often see a deeper lineage of influence, perhaps most noticeable with someone like Diana Krall as a clear protégé of Oscar Peterson.

While virtuosic technical ability is by no means a requirement of an influential musician, it often attracts attention early. Some musicians are fortunate enough to have the rare blend of elite technical ability, a sublime sense of expression, and a distinct voice; the women on this list are those musicians.

Finally, I wanted to choose pianists who not only inspired new ideas in existing musicians but also inspired newcomers to learn piano.

Martha Argerich (born 1941)

Martha Argerich classical pianist
Photo: Adriano Heitman

People often describe Martha Argerich as the greatest living classical pianist, and it’s difficult to argue otherwise.

Martha Argerich’s career spans seven decades and has barely slowed down over the years. The Argentine pianist, now in her 80s, is often noted as playing with the same energy and enthusiasm she had 50 years ago.

Her glittering career has seen her performing at every significant venue around the world while picking up any award that matters to classical musicians, including being honored by The Kennedy Center.

With nothing left to prove, Martha continues to tour for the love of music, and if you get a chance to see her perform live, I suggest you grab it with both hands.

Watch this video of Martha Argerich performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3

Although always appreciative of fans, this short and simple quote best demonstrates her love of music:

Audiences are not important for me now and they never were.Martha Argerich

Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896)

German pianist and composer Clara Schumann
Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl

The easiest way to summarize the importance of Clara Schumann is to say she was one of the very best pianists of the Romantic era, a time when she stood at the forefront of innovation alongside giants like Liszt and Chopin.

Unfortunately, in the broader conversation, she is still best known for being the wife of famed composer Robert Schumann. I think it’s remarkable that we can equally consider Clara Schumann as an er-defining talent and underrated.

Her virtuosic talent made her a prominent figure in a male-dominated time, and in turn, she inspires many new pianists to this day, especially females. It’s no exaggeration to say we may not have some modern-day greats without Clara Schumann.

Her headstrong approach to composition, which saw her ignore the advice of her then-teacher, Robert Schumann, inspires and influences me very much.

Thankfully, educators now consider Clara Schumann one of the most important musicians in the history of classical music.

An interesting fact about Clara Schumann is that her prodigious talent was so evident at just nine years old that it convinced a young Robert Schumann to give up studying law to study music under Clara’s father (Friedrich Wieck).

Watch this video of Isata Kanneh-Mason performing C. Schumann’s Piano Concerto

Myra Hess (1890 – 1965)

English pianist Myra Hess
Photo: Humphrey Jennings

Dame Myra Hess is a perfect example of an artist who inspired, motivated, and influenced people far beyond the realm of her music.

During World War II, Hess performed over 150 times at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London, bringing music and hope to people when they needed it most.

These were no ordinary performances; these were short intervals from the harsh reality of war, a fleeting window of calm. Myra Hess used her gift to unite people in a world on the verge of division.

If I can take anything from the music and playing of Myra Hess, it’s that music can be a force for good, and it’s most potent when built on personal expression. Myra Hess, known for vulgar jokes and smoking in public, was far from the typical image of a classical pianist, which I find refreshing.

It’s important to note that the influence of Hess was far more than significant timing during the war. Myra Hess was a prodigious child who was granted a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy at 12. By her late teens, she had already performed with some of the most respected musicians and conductors in music, including Sir Thomas Beecham.

Watch this video of Myra Hess performing her famous arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Why do we not have more English virtuosos? Being English, I think I know. We are too diffident, too self-analytical, too reserved. Our virtues, if we have any, are fortitude and restraint. It takes a crisis to arouse our spontaneity. Those are precisely the qualities a virtuoso should not have. He (or she) must have a terrific feeling of conviction.Myra Hess on the topic of English virtuosos

Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981)

Mary Lou Williams
Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Mary Lou Williams has influenced every musician who ever played with or after her, directly or indirectly. Despite making this bold claim, I still feel she is vastly underappreciated in any mainstream sense.

She paid her dues as a jazz big band musician in Kansas City. If you know about jazz big bands in the Swing era, you don’t make the cut in Kansas City unless you are a serious talent. Williams made a name for herself at just 25 years old, playing with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy.

Although she lacked confidence in her early prominence, Williams had already displayed abilities surpassing those of her peers. Her talent as a pianist was easy to see, but her ability to blend techniques and ideas from different styles and genres makes her influential/important, and not just great.

Despite any confidence issues, Williams’s responsibilities and influence in Andy Kirk’s band grew. Before long, she had the attention of iconic bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Benny Goodman.

Watch this video of Mary Lou Williams performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978

I’ve picked out a simple quote that’s a common saying in jazz, but it’s always nice to be reminded by such a talent:

It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.Mary Lou Williams

Nina Simone (1933 – 2003)

Nina Simone
Photo: Roland Godefroy

Often referred to as the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone is a musician and leading Civil Rights Activist whose legacy will live forever.

Born Eunice Waymon, as a youngster, she showed an early interest and talent for music. Most people know that Nina Simone plays piano but perhaps don’t know the extent of her ability. She started by studying classical music and was inspired particularly by the works of J.S. Bach, which led to her developing immaculate technique.

Although Nina Simone could mimic anyone, as she expressed herself more through singing, composition, and arrangement, her piano playing adopted a unique style.

What I liked most about Nina Simone’s piano playing is that she had impeccable taste and judgment. She had a talent for playing incredibly raw and gutsy chords/lines while sounding beautifully elegant.

Her influence extends far beyond music, but as a pianist, I aspire to play with even a touch of the soul she puts into every note.

Watch this video of Nina Simone performing live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!Nina Simone

Sophie Menter (1846 – 1918)

Sophie Menter
Photo: Josef Löwy

Sophie Menter was born in Munich, Germany, in 1846. Her father, Josef, was a cellist, and her mother, Wilhelmine, was a gifted singer. While it’s not unusual for noteworthy pianists to come from musical families, Sophie was particularly fortunate to have parents who played different instruments, which provided a unique perspective from a young age.

Unfortunately, the influence of Sophie’s cellist father was cut short as he passed away in 1856. Soon after her father’s death, she began studying music at the Munich Conservatory.

One of her first paying jobs was as a court pianist for a Prince in 1867. Then, in 1869, came a defining moment in her career when she met the incomparable Franz Liszt in Vienna. She performed his Concerto in E-flat so well that he took her as his protégé.

Liszt referred to Menter as his only piano daughter, and she was known to be one of his favorite and most gifted students.

Like many virtuoso musicians, Sophie Menter wasn’t short of eccentricities. She was as interesting as she was talented and lived in a castle with her cats.

Menter was a fearless performer. An interesting fact about Menter is that she was well-known for tackling music that terrified other pianists, including some of Franz Liszt’s most challenging works.

Listen to this recording of Sophie Menter performing Liszt’s Un Sospiro

Maryla Jonas (1911 – 1959)

Maryla Jonas
Photo: Nigel Nettheim

Maryla Jonas has a remarkable story and one fitting for the silver screen. Maryla began her musical education at the Warsaw Conservatoire at the age of 11. By her 20s, she had studied under Ignaz Paderewski and Emil Von Sauer, two would-be successors to Franz Liszt.

After such a promising and credentialed start, her performing career was brought to a halt by the Nazi invasion of Poland. Maryla’s life then took an even more tragic turn when her family was killed, and she was held captive by the Gestapo for seven months.

By chance, a music-loving Nazi officer who had previously seen her perform released her and advised her to head for the Brazilian Embassy in Berlin. This journey would see her traveling over 400 miles on foot, sleeping where and when she could along the way.

After fleeing to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, she rekindled her career with help from the legendary Arthur Rubinstein. Maryla Jonas continued to perform until she died from ill health in 1950.

Listen to this recording of Maryla Jonas performing Chopin’s Mazurka

Interesting fact: Despite the relatively short career of Maryla Jonas, her Chopin Mazurka in F major is widely regarded as one of the best ever recorded.

Olga Kern (born 1975)

Olga Kern
Photo: Chris Lee

Olga Kern is one of the most decorated classical pianists on the list. Both of Olga’s parents were talented pianists who taught her to play from a very young age. Having displayed immediate potential, Olga played her first concert at the age of seven.

The acclaimed pianist won her first international piano competition at 11 years old and followed up with many more. At 17 years old, Olga Kern became the first-ever winner of the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition, a considerable achievement.

While still a teenager, Olga Kern, like many past masters, had the world of classical piano in the palm of her hand as everyone watched with great expectations.

Another thing that Olga has in common with past masters is a rare blend of supreme technicality and unfaltering stage presence. It’s not the easiest thing to explain, but some pianists create a higher level of anticipation when they sit at the keys; Olga is one of them.

Competitions would remain a significant part of Olga’s life, and the Olga Kern International Piano Competition is now one of the biggest platforms for the brightest young pianists to compete.

Watch this video of Olga Kern performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3

If we let musical excellence be dictated by these narrow minds, the soul of the music will die.Olga Kern

Khatia Buniatishvili (born 1987)

Khatia Buniatishvili
Photo: Frankie Fouganthin

Khatia Buniatishvili is a young classical pianist with undeniable ability. The Georgia-born pianist began her musical journey at the age of three with her mother as her teacher. She was performing with the Tbilisi Chamber Orchestra when she was six years old. By the age of ten, Khatia was performing internationally.

Despite her obvious talent and international success, Khatia is a pianist who divides opinion among purists. While she is a technically superb musician, her creative choices aren’t appreciated by all.

Like all music, classical music is open to interpretation, although perhaps not as loosely as other genres. Khatia has sometimes been accused of expressing too much creative freedom when playing the works of past masters.

I have very mixed views on classical music; I love it, but I don’t like the lack of flexibility from many (not all) in the classical world. It’s important to respect the music, but there still has to be a permitted level of self-expression, and that’s why I had to include Khatia.

Khatia inspires a new generation of Classical musicians to explore expression and individuality, and I love that.

Watch this video of Khatia Buniatishvili performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto

When I’m on stage, freedom overpowers perfection.Khatia Buniatishvili

Hiromi Uehara (born 1979)

Hiromi Uehara
Photo: Robert Drózd

Hiromi Uehara is a Japanese pianist and composer who embodies what it means to be a virtuoso. She is known for her energetic performances that often leave people wondering how she does so much with just two hands.

One of her best qualities is her ability to merge various musical genres into short musical sections seamlessly. Her most prominent genres are jazz fusion, post-bop, and classical.

In recent years, Hiromi has released multiple solo albums to much critical acclaim. She has also released material as part of various combos.

Her unquestionable talent and unique personality have gained the attention of some of the world’s best-known musicians. She has collaborated with some of the biggest names in jazz and even released an album (Duet) with the legendary Chick Corea.

You have to watch Hiromi, not just listen, to appreciate her ability fully. Hiromi’s virtuosity is so mind-blowing it might scare you out of playing piano at first. But, after a minute or two, the sheer joy on her face as she performs is enough to inspire anyone, and it’s what I love most about her. She reminds us that having fun is important as we work hard at our craft.

Watch this video of Hiromi performing live at Jazz in Marciac 2010

I sound like a crazy person, but I feel when a piano is happy, and I feel when they find that moment to be alive.Hiromi

Marian McPartland (1918 – 2013)

Marian McPartland
Photo: Tom Marcello

Marian McPartland was a true pioneer for women in music, especially jazz music. But her musical career didn’t begin with jazz music; after playing from a young age, her formal music education began at 16 as a classical piano student. As a standout product of the Guildhall School of Music, McPartland was performing professionally in the 1930s.

She was one of many jazz greats with a strong background in classical music, like Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, and it gave her a different perspective than many.

Marian McPartland played with an intelligence and thoughtfulness that embodied her admiration for Duke Ellington. Even with blistering technique, she never gave in to the temptation of playing more than necessary, which is why she was a favorite of legends like Dizzy Gillespie.

Marian McPartland isn’t always discussed in conversations about the greatest jazz musicians, but when those greats were playing, you could be sure her name was often on their minds.

Watch this old video recording of Marian McPartland performing live

Her modesty was as charming as her music:

Boy, I’m just quietly doing my thing, and I hope they’ll look around and get my record out.Marian McPartland

Diana Krall (born 1964)

Diana Krall jazz pianist and singer
Photo: Alik Keplicz

To many people, even some music lovers, Diana Krall is a great singer who also plays piano. In reality, her piano playing deserves so much more attention. As a protégé of the late, great Oscar Peterson, Krall has inherited his impeccable sense of rhythm.

Although you’ll regularly hear her sing jazz standards from the Great American Songbook, her style is deeply rooted in the blues. Like Oscar Peterson, she has the ability to turn simple phrases into something extraordinary. Regardless of tempo, Diana Krall can swing as hard as any pianist alive today.

If you listen to Krall play something like “C Jam Blues” or “Deed I Do,” you’ll hear the influence of Oscar Peterson, but you’ll also hear something unmistakably Diana Krall.

One of my favorite things about Diana Krall, and something I think never gets enough credit, is her perfect phrasing. Whether improvising a solo or just comping, there are never any throwaway notes; everything is supremely musical.

Someone like Barry Harris would say that improvising is composing on the spot, and Krall is a master. It’s more than running scales and modes; it’s always melodic and has a purpose; there’s a lot to be learned by listening to Diana Krall.

Watch this video of Diana Krall performing live in New York

Interesting fact: Diana Krall is married to acclaimed singer, producer, and songwriter Elvis Costello.

Joanna MacGregor (born 1959)

Joanna MacGregor CBE
Photo: Nic Delves-Broughton

Joanna MacGregor has had (and continues to have) a stellar career as a performer and educator. Along with performing with the world’s leading orchestras, Joanna is Head of Piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. She is also a professor at the University of London.

Joanna MacGregor is known to be very open-minded musically, and I think we need more of that in classical music.

Joanna is one of the world’s most influential female pianists for several reasons. The most apparent reason is that she is one of the most celebrated active classical pianists, perhaps most notably when performing the works of J.S. Bach. Her exceptional technique allows her to make the most complex pieces appear easy.

My favorite thing about Joanna as a pianist is her interpretation of written music. She has an innate ability to capture every nuanced emotion intended by the composer without sacrificing her own voice.

Another obvious reason Joanna is an influential pianist is her position as an educator. If we had more educators like Joanna in prominent roles, the future of classical music would be in very safe hands.

Watch this video of Joanna MacGregor performing Piazzolla at Stapleford Granary

Young musicians; I want them to be curious and artistically unique.J. MacGregor, when asked what drives her to continue in music

DOMi Louna (born 2000)

DOMi Louna young French keyboardist
Photo: Alexander Kawasaki

The young pianist Domi isn’t yet a household name, but her fame is rising by the day. She came to the attention of many through several viral YouTube videos as a then-teenager displaying frightening technique and musicianship.

One of the most popular videos shows her sight-reading a Cory Henry solo from the Snarky Puppy track “Lingus.” This Cory Henry solo is one of the most talked-about keyboard solos in recent years, so for the then 17-year-old Domi to perform it so authentically with such relative ease was quite a statement.

Although YouTube brought her into the homes of many music fans, Domi was already on the radar of the legendary jazz record label Blue Note. Domi’s debut album under Blue Note came as half of the Domi & JD Beck duo with the album Not Tight.

The drummer, JD Beck, has an incredibly tight yet quirky style that perfectly accompanies Domi’s imaginative playing.

The young pianist can already boast an impressive list of collaborators, including Anderson Paak and Thundercat. Despite her young age, I chose to add Domi because she’s already inspired many youngsters to follow in her footsteps, and I’m sure she will continue doing so for decades.

Watch this video of DOMi & JD BECK performing at Nord Live Sessions

Domi is known for playing at great speed, and in her typically blunt but enthusiastic manner, when asked about her style, she said:

We wake up, and we gotta play fast.Domi


Musical ability is gender-neutral, but female pianists are often under-represented in discussions regarding influential musicians. As you can see, the pianists on this list have each contributed a great deal to music and, as such, continue to inspire musicians of all levels.