NOVEMBER 2011 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD
It costs less than ever to own a piano.
The past decade, unlike the previous five, has not seen the kind of technological breakthrough in musical instruments that instantly changes the way we make music. Instead, the story has been of incremental improvements in existing digital instrument designs.
Some of the new things this year have been merely gimmicks. You can, for example, play your iPad as if it were an accordion. That works, though, only if you have an extraordinary level of skill on the accordion. Otherwise, you are likely to hit the wrong touch-screen keys.
The change in digital pianos, though, is real. Engineers struggled through the 1990s to make a decent-sounding digital piano. By 2000 you could buy one for barely over $1,000. But that price has been creeping downward, and for the first time this shopping season, I have seen good low-end digital pianos priced below $250. As one piano-playing friend put it, “That’s less than the price of two piano tunings.”
It is also, not incidentally, below the price of a good low-end electric guitar or drum set. The new accessibility of the piano may change its place in the world of music. Guitars became the core instruments of rock in part because they were less expensive than classical instruments. You needed to know someone to play a piano, but any bloke could buy a guitar.
But guitars require real craftsmanship to make, whereas pianos can now be stamped out by factories. This makes the piano the real folk instrument, while the guitar, like the saxophone before it, is the province of people who have some money.
Will this give pianos a more prominent role in music? Well, sooner or later, it will have to, if only because of the musicians who buy a piano because they cannot afford a guitar.
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