COLUMBIA — Melissa Whalen bought a vintage Wurlitzer Spinet upright piano from a friend almost a year ago to replace her old digital keyboard.
She thought the digital was fine for a beginner, then decided it was limiting and bought an acoustic piano.
“I like to practice and play for relaxation,” Whalen said by e-mail.
Her purchase is unusual. Piano sales have been declining for years, particularly acoustics, which have seen a steep slide in sales since 2005.
A combination of factors seems to be at play. People don't focus on pianos as much as they used to. Owners become attached to them, so they aren't replaced.
Acoustic pianos, particularly grands, are also expensive and many people want a cheaper alternative. Yet, people continue to take lessons, and it’s unlikely pianos will ever disappear completely.
In the past 100 years, piano sales for both acoustic and digital pianos in the United States have declined 83 percent, from 364,000 pianos in 1909 to 62,536 pianos in 2007 according to bluebookofpianos.com.
At the same time, the U.S. population figure increased 233 percent in the last century.
According to the International Music Products Association and the publication Music Trades, the marked decline in acoustic piano sales has occurred within the last five years.
Some people point to a change in the culture surrounding the piano, which no longer has a primary place in most homes.
“Previously it was more part of scholastic study. People would gather in the home and that would be their entertainment,” said Sarah Ryan, an MU graduate student and piano teacher.
“Now they perform once or twice a year for recitals.”
Piano lessons have become an extracurricular activity that competes with soccer and other sports, Ryan said. She also noted that band instruments tend to be more popular because students can practice with their friends rather than alone.
Part of the culture change is a shift in instruments kids are now playing. Jack Falby of Palen Music said there is still an interest in piano, but many kids are opting for the guitar.
If you had called 25 years ago, it would have been more lopsided toward piano,” he said. “It is still known for being a great first instrument.”
Lucy Urlacher, who tunes pianos for MU, said consumers are blasted with ads for electronic devices, but not musical instruments.
“I think it’s a miracle that piano sales happen,” Urlacher said. “It’s not like other commodities that we’re constantly bombarded with.”
Urlacher gave digital cameras as an example: New features are continuously added that advertisers can promote and drive purchases.
Keeping pianos in families by passing them through generations could also be a reason for a drop in sales. Urlacher says the life expectancy of a piano is 40 to 50 years, but many remain in families for much longer.
“You wouldn’t send your kid out with Grandpa’s basketball, so don’t make them play his piano,” she said.
Pianos that remain in the family for years often breed nostalgia, which makes it painful to replace them, Urlacher said.
“We fall in love with our pianos, and they become old and decrepit,” she said. “We can’t bear to see them buried.”
Acoustic pianos are complex instruments with sensitive components, which makes them expensive.
Urlacher said families go into “sticker shock” when they see how much acoustic pianos can cost, which can be $4,000 for an upright and averages $13,000 for a grand.
Music stores in Columbia have noticed the popularity of digital keyboards, which can often be purchased for less than $1,000. Palen Music sells digital pianos exclusively. These digitals start at about $650, and they are lighter and more portable. They also don't require tuning twice a year, as acoustics do, Falby said.
Ryan said acoustics may cost more and take up more space in a home, but they hold their value.
Hennessy and Sons Music, owned by Frank Hennessy, opened in May 1975 and sells acoustic pianos and digital keyboards.
Acoustic pianos might wane in popularity but will never disappear, Hennessy said.
“The piano is going to stay,” he said. “It offers people a way to express themselves. We still have customers walking in the door."
Studies underscore the academic benefit of playing the piano, he added, particularly in analytical subjects. It also helps maintain mental health.
The National Piano Foundation cites studies at McGill University showing that elementary school children who play the piano score higher on tests in math and engineering. Michigan State University researchers found that anxiety and depression are decreased when older Americans take piano lessons.
The academic benefit is one reason Melissa Deavers and her son Brandon, 14, both take piano lessons at Palen Music. Deavers said she liked the memorization and math skills that come from playing the piano.
She has been interested in piano since she was a child, but never had the chance to take lessons. When her son showed interest, they both signed up for lessons last September.
“I have a good hearing skill,” Brandon said. “I was watching Harry Potter one time, and then I started playing the notes.”
That jump-started his interest and now, in addition to piano lessons, he has taught himself songs from his video games.
The Deavers currently have one upright and three full-size digital keyboards, but Melissa prefers the acoustic upright.
“If you know what a piano is supposed to sound like, it’s not the same with digital,” she said.
She doesn’t think the piano will ever vanish and loves to play.
“It’s a rule,” she said. “Nobody bothers mom when she’s practicing.”