The era when it was required of any well-rounded child to practice piano scales every day on the big family instrument in the living room is long gone. Sales of acoustic pianos—the old-fashioned ones with no electricity required—are plummeting, and stores dedicated to selling new instruments are closing around the United States, reports the Associated Press.
Since 2004, the sales have gone down over 60%, according to data (pdf, p.38) from the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). In the instrument’s heyday, 1909, merchandisers sold 364,500 thousand pianos, about 10 times as many as they do today.
In 2012, The New York Times reported that the value of used acoustic pianos has also sharply declined in the US, causing many to be brutally dumped and destroyed (paywall). People in the industry blame several factors.
For one, American children are increasingly over-scheduled, and when the choice is between competitive sports or the rigors of practicing the piano, music will tend to lose out. Not to mention the copious amounts of homework, or time in front of the TV, computer or tablet.
“People are interested in things that don’t take much effort, so the idea of sitting and playing an hour a day to learn piano is not what kids want to do,” Larry Fine, a piano technician, consultant and author told the Associated Press. While acoustic piano sales are at a historical low, tablet ownership among families with children under age 8 hit 40% in 2013.
Another reason are the readily available electronic instruments, a lot cheaper to buy and maintain than the acoustic ones. And these are doing fine on the market, according to the NAMM, staying roughly at the same level of sales — over 100,000 units — since 2004, with a near 7% increase in pianos sold in 2013. They also offer more options for the plugged-in 21st century player, with different sound options, Wi-Fi connections and fiber-optic sensors that help with accurately recording what you play.
While it surely detracts attention from traditional instruments, retailers hope digital culture can also help with maintaining kids’ interest in playing the piano. Electronic-harpischord “Chopsticks” may not sound quite like it does on a Steinway Grand, but hey, it’s still something.