As Piano Month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking what might be distinct about the piano as an instrument, and why it holds such an important place in many people’s musical memory & imaginations.
Piano music conjures up so many different moods. It can be joyful, triumphant, fun, playful, lively, wistful, dreamy or contemplative. Pieces like piano concertos by Shostakovich, Rachmaninov or Grieg, or the music of Ludovico Einaudi, contrast with a piece like Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. So people can turn to piano music in different moods and at different times and hear their own emotions and experiences mirrored by the music. One composer can create pieces at opposite ends of the mood spectrum – like Elton John, with songs full of verve alongside songs full of lament. Many lullabies focus on the piano, but so do many dance pieces. It defies genre, dominating classical, jazz, rock and pop alike.
Obviously, other musical instruments can convey different moods as well. The piano’s sheer size has contributed to its position, as has its importance in accompanying solo singers, group singalongs, worship or choirs. Moreover, slightly distinct from the orchestra, piano is striking as a solo instrument, and many piano soloists have become particularly famous, from Franz Liszt – the first superstar musician perhaps – to performers of today like Vikingur Olafsson or Lang Lang.
But in what other ways can piano improve wellbeing?
Playing the piano yourself can be mindful – a way to focus and absorb your mind, even to drive away unwelcome thoughts. The sheer concentration required is helpful for this. Piano practice could be a bind and a duty, but it could also be a haven and a refuge for many people. It can order their thoughts and create a sense of balance and harmony. The piano is also ideal for improvisation, allowing the performer freedom to experiment and play with music and sound, which could be beneficial in a different way.
Improvisation can also help people with dementia, who may have learned to play the piano but may now be unable to follow sheet music or to remember once familiar pieces.
In the 19th century and on to the mid 20th century, many people in the UK owned pianos and played them regularly, with singing around the piano a family tradition. Before the days even of records, let alone CDs or streaming, this brought music into many homes. But pianos have since become an expensive luxury. Far fewer people now own a piano, so that ability to play or to hear live music at home has faded away. This matters, because it excludes lower and middle income households from music’s clear impact on wellbeing. Just as people on lower incomes will be less likely to afford music lessons, so owning a musical instrument has become another barrier to opportunity.
Initiatives opening up piano playing are great – like placing pianos in railway stations, shopping centres or other public places for anyone to sit down and play as they walk by. And more are needed.
Have you found that hearing or playing the piano boosts your wellbeing? It would be great if you’d like to share any thoughts or experiences in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002