(Media credit/J. Weissmahr via Flickr)

(Media credit/J. Weissmahr via Flickr)

For decades, it was common for old, majestic pianos in the corners of living rooms around the country to come alive every afternoon after school. Whether producing the rambunctious clatter of boisterous children’s tunes and scales with one too many mistakes, or more elegant whispers of "Fur Elise," and "Moonlight Sonata," children faithfully practiced day after day.

Today, many of those pianos — their pedals and keys now cloaked in cobwebs and dust — stand silent. For many children, as they grow older, their interest in the piano fades for a number of different reasons. Whether their parents forced them to practice every day and they grow to associate the piano with discipline, or they become immersed in other activities like after-school sports, or they simply do not enjoy playing, pianos often become little more than nostalgic reminders of simpler times for a lot of adults.

According to the Bluebook of Pianos, piano sales have declined by 83 percent in the last 100 years. In the past 50 years, our population has also multiplied more rapidly than ever before, growing from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to over 6.5 billion people in 2005. More recently, in the past 20 years, piano sales have declined by more than half — from nearly 175,000 in 1987 to about 62,500 in 2007.

Yet while these staggering numbers may lead some to believe that the piano’s role in society is becoming non-existent, it will never be replaced in classical and jazz music. And while many pianos across America are suffering the dreaded fate of serving as mere pieces of furniture, they are still hugely popular first instruments for children. While this instrument’s importance in family homes may be diminishing, its role in society is actually just shifting to fit a smaller niche of professional musicians and music enthusiasts.

Over the years, owning and playing an acoustic piano has come to stand for a lot more than simply music. In the past it has represented dedication, wealth, and family togetherness. Learning an instrument takes time, and when children sit down at a piano, they learn patience and the value of hard work.

David Estey, owner of Estey Pianos in New Jersey, has been buying, selling, tuning, and restoring pianos for 35 years. According to him, one of the great values of the piano is the self-esteem boost it provides for beginners. "The piano takes effort," he says. "This is why it is so important for a child’s (or adult’s) self-esteem when they do learn to play. They have accomplished something of value."

Before the days of television and even radio, the piano was a gathering place for the family, giving them somewhere to congregate and something on which to focus their attention. The act of singing along while someone was playing a piano served as a way to bring groups of people together. Suzanne Davis, a jazz pianist and associate professor of piano at Berklee College of Music in Boston, observed the piano’s still-present role as a gathering place when she played at one of her son’s school productions.

"I’m playing the piano a little bit and people are gathered around," she remembered, "and other kids started playing the piano, and Mike says to me, ‘You know, what I like about the piano is that people gather around when you play.’"

Today, Davis heads the Suzanne Davis Quartet, which plays all over New England and in New York City. Her free, modern style epitomizes the range of emotions that can be conveyed by the piano — from peppy high notes to slow and moody lows. While the piano’s power has changed over the years due to the rise of television and the Internet and the subsequent reduction of attention spans, its large size and its ability to play a variety of musical genres has always brought people together.

A key question about the piano’s role in modern culture is whether it still stands for all the values it has been associated with in the past. And if the piano still signifies culture, wealth, and hard work, does its decline signify a shift in our culture’s values? Much of the decline in piano sales can be attributed to pragmatic reasons.

"The only hindrance to it being more popular is the cost of the piano and the space issues," says Davis, sighing. While many people would love to own and play a piano, many times the cost (up to $8,000 for an upright and $24,000 for a grand) prohibits them from doing so. A Steinway & Sons concert piano (9 feet long) costs more than $100,000, according to the Bluebook of Pianos.

However, it is also possible to find beat up, used pianos for as low as $250-500. These pianos can serve as great starter instruments, but they may have a lot of problems such as rusty strings and an inability to stay in tune. The cost of maintenance may also deter some potential buyers. For a piano to stay in good shape, it should be tuned twice a year, which costs $75 to $125 and takes about two hours. Also, every ten years or so, most pianos need more serious work done, such as leveling the keyboard or filling the hammers (the part of the piano that actually strikes the strings). This usually costs from $1,000-$3,000.

The piano’s large size also turns some people off to the instrument. People are a lot less willing to sacrifice space and money when there are so many smaller and cheaper options available now to provide entertainment.

Time also plays a contributing role. Estey observes that in our fast-moving culture, musical instruments are "competing — not so much with each other — but with video games, soccer, lacrosse, and a whole host of other things." He notes that this decline is not limited to the piano, and is evident in all musical instruments. It seems that the piano’s change in significance represents a culture where the emphasis on individual achievement is undermined by the ability to do 5,000 different things at once.

The ever-present electronic keyboard poses another potential problem for the acoustic piano, as it’s constantly threatening to outsell the traditional version of the instrument. Small, half-sized keyboards usually cost around $200, and keyboards that have all 88 keys can sell for anywhere from $550-$2,000, depending of course on the quality and brand. Keyboards are also cheaper to maintain, as they don’t require any tuning.

To Nick Gorman, who has played the piano since the third grade and now plays the keyboard in a contemporary rock band, the electric piano is an essential part of his music. While he will always enjoy playing the piano, Gorman acknowledges certain advantages of the keyboard, especially for someone like him who plays classic rock music. "The biggest difference that I liked was it was always in perfect tune," he says. "An acoustic piano, depending on weather and humidity, can go out of tune fairly quickly." He also notes how the keyboard "allows a player to change a key by transposing the key without changing the way you play a particular song." Gorman says he can spend hours a night just experimenting with different keyboard sounds.

Jazz pianists like Davis are also quick to recognize the keyboard’s value. "I don’t like to diss the keyboard particularly because there are certain things that keyboards can do that pianos can’t," she says. "And I like to have those sounds at my disposal." Keyboards also come in handy for other musical professions. Dave Gonzalez, a 2008 Berklee graduate and current film composer, is able to connect his keyboard to his computer in order to synchronize the music he makes with film. "What’s also incredibly helpful for me when writing with the keyboard is that I can write in direct synchronization with the film," he says. "Finding the right tempo is essential and the computer helps me find the timing and adjust it to make it feel natural even thought it’s very planned."

Yet despite the keyboard’s popularity, acoustic piano enthusiasts are confident that the traditional version of the instrument is here to stay."The acoustic piano will not disappear any more than the acoustic guitar did when the electric guitar came to be," Estey comments. While the popularity of electric guitars is also on the rise, there is still a market for acoustic guitar music, as there is a certain kind of music that would just not work with an electric instrument. The same thing rings true for the piano. "The sound of an acoustic instrument in general really can’t be duplicated successfully with digital sampling," Davis observes. "I don’t think so because the sound going through the air, through the wood, has a certain kind of sound, and it’s really not comparable [to that of a keyboard]."

Furthermore, the piano’s role in classical music will never be overtaken by the popularity of the keyboard. "A concert pianist wouldn’t and couldn’t play any keyboard on the face of this earth the way they can play a well-made acoustic piano," Estey comments. "It just ain’t happening."

The role of the piano will also always be integral to jazz; although, as Davis notes, most great jazz players are able to switch back and forth. "Herbie Hancock was one of the first people to really explore the possibilities of the electric piano. He was always able to go back and forth between the two, which is what I think most of us in jazz do," she notes.

As with any instrument, the choice between a keyboard of a piano depends on musical style and personal preference. Although, as Davis observes, "the soul of the instrument is in the wood." Despite his affinity for keyboards, Gonzalez expresses a similar sentiment. "The real piano feels acoustic," he says. "It’s real. I can feel its vibrations in my core."

The “cool” factor comes into play as well. The electric guitar has enjoyed a long history of being seen as "cooler" than the piano by many rock music fans, and their small size and price tag also makes them particularly appealing to consumers. While some children associate the piano with rules and discipline, they see the electric guitar as freeing and rebellious. According to the Music Trades Industry, a total of 3,302,670 electric guitars were sold for the year 2007 in the United States, compared to 62,536 total pianos.

Gorman notes that he quit playing the piano when he was a teenager because he didn’t view it as "cool enough." When he was 16 years old in 1968, all of his favorite musicians, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, relied on electric guitars more than pianos or keyboards. However, Gorman returned to his love of the piano when he got older, purchasing an upright piano for his home and taking up the keyboard in his band. Gorman came to the realization that playing any instrument well requires time and discipline, so he returned to the instrument that he truly enjoyed more.

Another reason why the piano struggles to compete with the electric guitar is its association with discipline and perseverance, which steers some beginners away from it. Davis remembers how practicing the piano when she was a child was "a burden" at times. "I wanted to play music, not to practice it," she remembers. While practice is obviously required for any skill, many parents and teachers would force children to practice piano for long hours, thus discouraging them from the instrument. Modern society’s need for instant gratification is restricting the piano’s popularity more and more to professional musicians and people who are so passionate about music that they are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to learn something new.

However, Davis acknowledges that the tediousness of practice often gives way to the mastery of a skill — something pianists have long prided themselves on. Yet the stigma about strict piano teachers and parents has made some families hesitant about starting piano lessons. Estey notes some parents who come into his store and say in front of their child, ‘We don’t know if little Johnny will stick with it, because he rarely sticks with anything, so we don’t want to buy something of good value that will last.We want something cheap.’" Some families see an investment in the electric guitar as easier and less of a commitment, and that they state this in front of their child strongly discourages him from ever starting to play, Estey argues.

However, despite the competition from other instruments and extracurricular activities, professional musicians and piano players assert that the piano is here to stay. "I think it’s encouraging that a lot of people who do have an appreciation for classical music are teaching our kids, you know all that stuff, or taking them to composers, you know that’s really the way it has to be," comments jazz artist Davis. Teaching children an appreciation for the piano has certainly paid off, with students like Gonzalez demonstrating a clear appreciation for it. "The dichotomy between soft and simple to powerful and loud completely impresses me and gives me much respect for the instrument," he says.

The piano also still plays an important role in the development of young people. Estey points out that learning the piano has been associated with better math skills and greater spatial reasoning. Also, the piano has proven to be an important outlet for more reserved children. Davis, who didn’t enjoy performing or being the center of attention when she was a child, remembers situations as a child where she would play the piano for her parents’ friends and "they’d want to be singing. The more drunk they got, the more they started singing. All their college songs and all that stuff."

While our culture is rapidly changing — people constantly have the need to be doing three things at once — it is easy to assume that there is no place for the piano. Estey acknowledges the effects our changing culture has had on the this instrument: "We live in a society where instant gratification reigns supreme, and putting out effort to accomplish something of lasting value is not all that popular." However, he notes "the market will rise and fall with the awareness of the importance of music in one’s home."

With something that symbolized so much more than the actual music — a symbol of culture, of self-esteem, of hard work, and of family togetherness — this cultural shift may hurt the piano’s sales, but this nostalgic instrument is not going anywhere. "I hope people will always want to hear, same thing with violins or any other instrument, the real instrument," Davis says. "I’m hoping that people will always resonate to that sound, you know, and that people won’t forget.”

Gonzalez’s passion for this simple instrument conveys all the magic of the piano. "What amazes me consistently is how when you put those tones in a specific order, you can cry from sadness, joy, love, or recognition of a melody from the past." With its still prevalent role in classical and jazz and its ability to convey the gamut of human emotion in just 88 keys, the piano has solidified its place as a prominent instrument among professional musicians and music enthusiasts.

About The Author

2 Responses

  1. Peter Mathis

    I think the existence of cheap keyboards is the main reason for the decline in piano purchases. Price does matter, and not just because people are worried about their children sticking with it — most people just plain don’t have the money for a traditional piano, period. Even if it isn’t as good as a traditional piano, I’m glad the keyboard option is available.

  2. Andrew de Geofroy

    Actually, I suspect this is a general trend that has occurred with most musical instruments. I think across the board, music-making is not as valued as a form of entertainment as it once was. The numbers aren’t that surprising in terms of decline in piano sales, and I’d expect similar results for other instruments (though pianos are the quintessential living room classic). With TV, video games, computers, there’s not much room for gathering around the ivory and listening to the latest sheet music (or cringing at your little sister’s attempts at replicating it).

    Andrew de Geofroy is Blast’s ombudsman.


Leave a Reply