The Piano is an I/O Device


The piano is fundamentally an I/O (input/output) device.

It has an interface (keys and pedals), some mechanisms that process input (hammers, etc) and a means of output (sound, through vibration of strings).

This is not a metaphorical way of looking at it. I mean this in a completely literal sense. It is a machine designed to produce output for human interpretation based on human input.

In a general sense, a musical instrument is a device/tool/instrument.

I cannot think of any field of human endeavour in which we attempt to teach a child to operate an instrument in the way that it is considered normal to teach piano.

We don’t send kids to hammer/saw/chisel classes. We might send them to woodwork classes.

We don’t send them to tennis racket classes. We send them to tennis classes, or tennis comes up as part of more general sports classes.

We don’t send them to pen, ruler, pencil, spoon, whisk or paintbrush classes.

Come to think of it, there is one device that we teach for its own sake. The automobile. A device we expressly want people to operate in a specific, designated manner for the safety of others.

Anyway, let’s get back to what type of device it is… an I/O device.

The user inputs keystrokes and pedal operations and the machine outputs audio. If the device is faulty (from poorly tuned strings, broken hammers, etc), the audio output will be unexpected (“wrong”). If the input is not what the user intends, the output, again, will be unexpected (“wrong”). If the user inputs the intended keystrokes and the machine is not faulty, the “correct” audio output is expected.

When a child goes to “piano lessons”, it is almost certainly the case that the intended input is predefined. The object of the exercise is to take a piece of written music and train the child to enter the correct keystrokes for the device to produce the expected output.

Moreover, that will, in the overwhelming majority of cases, continue to be the object of the exercise throughout the child’s experience of learning to operate the device.

This system is great for people who want to play classical pieces. If you want to faithfully bring to life written pieces of music, this is the kind of tuition you require.

I wonder, though, for how many children is the recreation of classical pieces a priority? For how many parents is it a priority? In my experience, most parents want to give their kids the opportunity to “be musical”.

The current system is much like someone becoming skilled at painting and repeatedly recreating famous paintings, someone learning to program for the web and repeatedly re-making famous websites, someone learning to use Microsoft Word so that they can type out “Of Mice and Men” or someone learning to talk and using the skill to read famous monologues aloud.

There is an enormous duality existent in the minds of regular people, almost certainly due to a lack of any real quality time thinking about this matter.

Before the second half of the 20th Century people had to write musical ideas down on paper. There was no recorded music. This music (of which there’s an awful lot) survived through other humans sitting at a piano and faithfully re-enacting the intentions of the composer.

For lots and lots of years, then, “playing the piano” had a vital purpose in keeping alive music that society considered valuable. It was a noble pursuit.

As soon as recorded music became something normal people had access to, something exciting happened. Normal people started to participate in the making of recordings. As long as someone was able to execute their music and someone who’d finance it saw the value in it, they’d be able to produce art in the new recorded medium.

Without ever having to write proper musical notation, artists were able to memorise their own work, perform it, record it and distribute it. The jazz, pop and blues piano records we love are almost entirely produced in this way. The artist creates musical ideas, remembers them, executes them lots of times, records them and distributes them.

What happens next is bizarre.

The child goes to piano lessons. He/She asks to play music by Elton John or Billy Joel (or whoever), and the piano teacher pulls out a book of transcribed sheet music of Elton John/Billy Joel songs.

Never mind that this isn’t how the songs were written, how the songs were remembered, how the songs were played at any stage, by anyone in any part of the process of making the recordings or the live shows of the songs.

That problem is now more than 40 years old and is worsening daily. The musical landscape is now awash with creative bedroom musicians with loop pedals, complex rhythms never once executed by a human, regular speech autotuned into music… super fun crazy stuff is going on and the kids are excited.

Then they get to their piano lesson and it’s scales, fingering and notation… disciplines blatantly ignored by virtually all purveyors of top-quality modern popular music.

Make of that what you will.