Has Britain abandoned the piano?

Two pianos recently found dumped near the top of a mountain in the Brecon Beacons National Park - Wales news service
Two pianos recently found dumped near the top of a mountain in the Brecon Beacons National Park - Wales news service

There are few sadder sights than an abandoned piano, because old pianos are more than just musical instruments. They are repositories of history and memory. In those cracked and discoloured keys and squeaky non-functioning pedals you can feel and smell the traces of family singalongs, hours of careful practice, and random tinklings by infants or passing cats. An old piano is as evocative and forlorn as those family photo albums that turn up in junk shops. It’s especially sad because once upon a time that piano, which now makes only broken and out-of-tune noises was once shiny and new and displayed with pride.

This week a walker photographed two pianos – one baby grand, one upright – dumped near the top of a 1,841ft mountain in the Brecon Beacons National Park. The picture prompted much speculation about who may have left them, and how on earth they hauled them up there; but, for anyone who has ever had a piano in their life, it prompted a pang of sorrow. How could anyone do this?

But it’s not just on picturesque mountain-sides that pianos are being abandoned. They’re often found in landfill sites, on municipal tips or left in derelict buildings. Why is this happening? Why has this thing that was once so highly prized become mere junk?

The reasons are complex, to do with huge changes in social mores, musical taste and changing technologies. To understand them you have to go back more than 250 years, when the piano had just been invented and was beginning its ascent to the world’s pre-eminent instrument. It arrived at an opportune moment. The middle classes were on the rise in Europe and America, and they needed an instrument in the home that showed how accomplished and tasteful they were. The piano was exactly right for the job. It could be decorous, which made it right for the ladies, but it could also reveal hidden passions. In George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, the imperious German virtuoso Herr Klesmer (inspired by Franz Liszt) has "an imperious magic in his fingers that seemed to send a nerve-thrill through ivory key and wooden hammer."

By then the piano had ceased to be a lovingly hand-crafted item for rich households. It now had an iron frame instead of a wooden one, and was mass-produced by names that are still familiar: Steinway, Baldwin, Chappell. Open up a piano to look at the innards and you are transported back to a bygone age of bolts and rivets and wires under many tonnes of pressure, as emblematic of the Victorian age as a suspension bridge or steam engine. Because of this technology, a piano has a range and power which meant it could encompass a whole world of music.

A world of music: a piano factory employee working on the instrument in 1946 - H Maeers/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A world of music: a piano factory employee working on the instrument in 1946 - H Maeers/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And yet this miracle of modern technology could be found in working-class parlours, and in pubs where it accompanied sing-alongs. The pub piano might not be tuned very often but it was recognisably the same instrument played by Liszt and Rubinstein on a concert grand, and it could take any amount of rough treatment. It was this robustness of the piano, so different to the delicacy of a harpsichord, which allowed it to be so socially malleable. It could be found in jazz clubs and churches, it was used in rock and roll, it was played by sticky-fingered children in schools.

The piano started to slip when the electric guitar came along, but it was really the invention of digital synthesisers in the 1980s that sounded the death-knell for the instrument. These were equipped with the familiar keyboard, which like the piano allowed the player to create a whole self-contained musical world. Unlike the piano they were relatively cheap, they could produce a whole range of sounds, and they were portable.

Suddenly the difficulties of even a modest upright piano became glaringly evident. They’re so damned heavy (grand pianos sometimes weighing half a tonne), they’re so difficult to get beyond the ground floor because they won’t fit round the bend in the staircase (leaving no choice but to use a prohibitively expensive crane), and unlike a synthesiser you can’t play them using headphones, so they tend to annoy the neighbours. Meanwhile the kinds of music for which the piano is essential, such as classical and jazz, were slipping in popularity. In pubs the singalong around the piano was giving way to the karaoke bar.

Princess Diana with sons Prince William and Prince Harry at the piano in Kensington Palace (1985) - Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images
Princess Diana with sons Prince William and Prince Harry at the piano in Kensington Palace (1985) - Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

It appeared that the decline in pianos would become inevitable. And yet, news from the heart of the industry says it’s not a lost cause. Yes, there’s been a long decline in piano ownership closely paralleled by a decline in piano teaching, piano tuning, and piano manufacture (apart from in China, where middle-class aspiration is still very much alive, and which now produces 80 per cent of all the world’s new pianos). There is now only one course in piano maintenance in the UK, at Newark College, and one piano manufacturer left, Yorkshire’s Cavendish Pianos – but the industry, however reduced, is not dead.

“I’ve worked in pianos for 30 years, and I’ve never been busier,” says Adam Cox, founder of Cavendish Pianos, explaining that while he understands pictures of dumped instruments are sad to see, there’s more to it than a national distaste for the instrument.

“The problem is that people expect pianos to last forever – and they do last a long time, around 100 years – but after a while, like cars, they do need to be scrapped. We recycle as many parts as possible but it does get to a point where they are more ornament than instrument. My guess is that the pianos we are seeing dumped have no musical value. They’ve what we call in the industry PSOs – ‘piano shaped objects’.”

Cavendish Pianos, Yorkshire, is the UK's only remaining piano factory - Charlotte Graham
Cavendish Pianos, Yorkshire, is the UK's only remaining piano factory - Charlotte Graham

Finding a piano tuner is almost impossible in some areas. Adding to the piano’s decline is the whittling away of music in the school curriculum. Add to that the difficulty of disposing of unwanted, unloved pianos, which have a resale value of exactly £0, and it’s no wonder pianos are being dumped in ever-increasing numbers.

There are more signs that the piano is still very much beloved. Markson Pianos, in London, has seen an “exponential”  rise in the number of pianos they hire a year, likely inspired by the pandemic, when people were stuck at home and needed a new hobby. “We have 600 pianos out on hire at the moment,” says Simon Markson, “which is an increase of about 100 since last year.”  And, despite the cost of living crisis, Markson Pianos has maintained "very steady sales in the face of adversity” which Markson describes as “very reassuring.” In fact, piano hire is in such rude health that, Markson chuckles, “my repairs workshop is a little strained”.

'A piano shaped object': an old upright piano dumped on the side of the road in north London - Michael Heath / Alamy Stock Photo
'A piano shaped object': an old upright piano dumped on the side of the road in north London - Michael Heath / Alamy Stock Photo

Many retailers are shrewdly touting the health benefits of playing the piano, which are certainly real. It lowers stress, releases pleasurable endorphins, and as a team writing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2014 showed it can stave off ‘cognitive impairment’. It’s true that many of these new buyers prefer digital pianos, which start at around £300, but quite a few are willing to spend the £800 or more needed for a reconditioned upright, or £3,000 for a brand-new piano. And the fact that premier league footballers and tech entrepreneurs are - as one piano seller told me - willing to fork out £30,000 for a self-playing Yamaha grand to show off in the living-room proves that the piano has not lost its social cachet.

Most importantly, many people from every social class and background still get enormous pleasure from playing an instrument with keys and hammers and strings. There’s a tactile quality in playing a piano which no ‘touch sensitive’ digital keyboard can ever really replicate.

The appeal of the good old-fashioned piano is proved by the wonderful Channel 4 series The Piano, which invited amateur pianists from all over Britain to compete for the title of best amateur pianist. There were rock and roll bangers, jazz pianists and fans of Billy Joel songs, but it was the 13-year-old blind pianist Lucy who on Thursday evening carried off the prize. (She was given a piano, since she didn’t actually have one in her home.)

The burgeoning interest in “vintage” objects from the pre-digital age (see: hipster favourites typewriters and cassette players) gives hope that the tide could even turn for those battered old pianos now abandoned on municipal tips or mountain-sides. They might cost thousands to restore and make playable, but they have a depth of character a new piano can’t match.

A friend of mine once bought an old German piano for almost nothing and sent it to Germany to be restored. The result as I can attest is a thing of wonder, with a sound so soft-grained and mellow that just playing a single chord is a joy. “We are noticing a trend for a piano without the usual shiny black finish, with customers looking for a retro, wooden one instead,”  says Markson. “But it changes generationally. Before, everyone wanted a teak finish to go with their teak floorboards.”

So if you’re wondering what to do with granny’s old piano, give it to a specialist such as Edinburgh's Pianodrome, which exists to rescue old pianos then put them up for “adoption” . Better still, take it under your wing and restore it to health. You’ll rescue a family heirloom, help the environment, and allow something that’s become sad and silent to sing once more.