I just stumbled across this article from the LA Times about the declining sales of acoustic pianos, the rise in sales of electronic instruments and digital keyboards, and what it all might mean. According to the article, 105,000 acoustic upright and grand pianos were sold in the US in the year 2000, but only 54,000 in 2007. Sales of electronic pianos and keyboards soared over that same period. Most people reading the article might reasonably assume that piano sales have declined with the 21st century, but they would be wrong: piano manufacture and sales have been in serious decline since the 1920s, when the phonograph and wireless radio became the entertainments around which a family gathered in the living room, rather than the piano. After all, it takes time, and practice, and expensive lessons – in short, money and leisure – to learn to play. Compare 1910, when 360,000 pianos were made and sold in the US alone (according to the whimsical and exhaustive Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History by Arthur Loesser, a volume first published in 1954 and into which I have recently been delving at length). The digital revolution of the last two decades has made the decline particularly sharp.
The LA Times article trots out the usual reasons for the decline in the piano’s centrality to American living rooms: the increasing popularity of other forms of entertainment, the overly scheduled nature of children’s lives, and the general portability of music in contemporary life (iPods, MP3 players, CDs, even the ubiquitous piped music while shopping and eating). But while I think these reasons (particularly the latter) play their part, I think the real change that mirrors the piano’s rise and decline is the changing roles of women in daily life. For almost 200 years being able to play the piano was a critical ingredient in a young woman’s marriageability, in the days when women’s work was all conducted at home and in the socio-sexual playing field of the parlour room. Think of Jane Austen’s heroines, who were all able to play, albeit to varying degrees of competence; or that peculiarly French genre of “young girl at the piano” paintings of the second half of the 19th century. I don’t recall seeing any formal portraits of female musicians and their electronic keyboards in recent years, but perhaps that’s because they are too busy earning a living and writing their own music to sit still long enough.