Popular music – how about some more piano…

The piano was traditionally the instrument of songwriting, always perceived as the perfect accompaniment to the voice. But in popular music today, that position belongs to the guitar. I have some theories about how and why this has happened.

Status symbol

By the turn of the 20th century, the piano had become a popular symbol of the middle class elite: there were a hundred different manufacturers residing in New York alone! Classical artists like Rubinstein and Horowitz had the status of film stars. As the heyday of iconic stars and showbiz glamour peaked, the slightly terrifying character of Liberace took to the world’s stage, championing the piano’s glitzy aspirational appeal in a way that would outdo even the most tasteless bling of certain 90s rappers.

Of course, the piano was seamlessly involved in the advent of soul, blues and rock and roll and there are always artists like Stevie Wonder or Elton John who make the piano a star in its own right… But the combination of elitist snobbery and rather base status-seeking materialism in the consumer age has had a negative effect on this glorious instrument’s ongoing role in music; whilst by contrast, the guitar, in both its acoustic and electric incarnations, has naturally been given full prominence. This is because the guitar is the instrument of the people: it is cheap, lightweight, sounds great and has never been the object of shameless elitism or material aspiration.

It’s not a real piano…

Electric pianos that appeared mid-century were certainly cheaper than a Steinway… But they were still quite expensive. And worse, people tended to look down on them as lacking the all-important status of the “real thing”. They were considered fake in a way that electric guitars never were. Of course, loads of amazing music has been made on these wonderful-sounding pianos – especially those manufactured by Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hohner, but the popular music industry has never really put them front and centre as they did guitars. Keyboard synthesisers, on the other hand, have enjoyed both cult and popular status. This role of the keyboard has evolved effortlessly into the digital age and the keyboard features very prominently in produced music. But on stage, a synth – old analogue or new digital – is a very different animal: it is less alive, less natural or human and it feels much less connected expressively. Synths are also undergoing huge technological evolution: I have acquired a Roli Seaboard which feels extraordinarily organic and musically connected. But the piano remains my first love!

New piano technology

Of course, digital pianos are now very established and popular. But let’s be honest here… They are often thought of as something you buy for your children to practise their scales on! But in their stage format, they have become more and more popular, and even feature prominently, especially in jazz-influenced music! I love this resurgence. New physical modelling technology, that I use, especially the amazing software Pianoteq by Modartt means that I can combine a laptop with a lightweight portable digital piano and a sound system and I have a piano that sounds every bit as wonderful as acoustic and electric pianos. I hope manufacturers will start to develop exciting new designs for stage pianos, as looks are of course a very important part of the aesthetics of a musical instrument. Electric guitars often have beautiful and innovative designs; whereas stage pianos generally just look very techy.

Hoping for a resurgence of the piano in popular music

Obviously, the guitar is also the most user-friendly instrument for developing musical skills. The non-classical approach of learning chords and rhythm patterns fosters a high degree musical fluency in guitarists. This fluency that makes the instrument feel like a part of you, so you play it directly from the body and soul, means that the guitar is ideal both for inspired songwriting and performing. But I think the piano could regain its position as the ultimate songwriter’s instrument! The problem is that fluent skills on the piano keys are sadly rather rare and composers rely more and more on computers to do their musical thinking for them! But in the hands of a truly fluent pianist, as well as being able to generate very complete and complex musical textures, the piano is also capable of evoking an extraordinary level of musical expression and atmosphere. The autonomy and feeling of connection from the body and soul to the music that a pianist can have is every bit as strong as that of a guitarist, but on a bigger scale.

I have developed a teaching model that provides people with real fluent musicianship skills on the keys. I would love to think that when published, my course might help many students of the piano become empowered musically in a similar way that learning guitar does already. Perhaps this, combined with new portable instruments that sound acoustically rich and beautiful, means that in the future, the piano can stand alongside the guitar as the people’s instrument.

Challenge Prejudice

I feel it is important that people are challenged for looking down on stage pianos believing that their expensive acoustic counterparts are inherently better. As practising musicians, we know that this view does not really hold up to scrutiny. Whilst I’m not asking anyone to lose their love for acoustic pianos – they are beautiful machines – it would be great if people checked their true motives for denigrating digital or electric pianos and embraced the wonders of new technology as people had to do in the 18th century when the piano was a new invention.

Music is human not machine

Music is human for me, or maybe more than human, maybe divine. It is love. It comes from the same place as beauty and grace in nature. It is a communion between hearts and souls that is profoundly consoling or cleansing. It releases our darkest nightmares and illuminates our being.

A Glossy Commodity

When music is contrived to be a commodity, it can lose some of its profound essence and become merely sound. The meanings carried in the shapes and patterns, the complex and subtle messages degrade when the ego is in charge. Because of the nature of music, its truth tends to be pretty resilient and its beauty shines through even in the most tightly manufactured production.

But that’s because of our musical nature. Even a ticking clock can seem to have a rhythmic groove as it passes through the filter of our musical understanding.

More than Perfect

Human rhythmic flexibility and tonal nuance, the seeming imperfections of a living breathing musician that are more perfect than any machine can create with algorithms… these deliciously natural sounds require the kind of skills that our twenty-first century minds can tend to ignore. As we obsess over AI, we see nature less as mysterious or divine and more as a simple act of programming. And surely we might just be missing the point!

The skill of a surfer implausibly riding terrifyingly huge waves is a feat that perhaps the most advanced AI might one day reproduce robotically – I wonder… But on some level of our perception, the robotic quality might just be evident. Some aesthetic aspect, some quality of grace or exhilaration might be missing in the almost perfect imitation of the original experience. Certainly, even the most advanced CGI today still fails to look like a human face in expressive motion. Or does it?

Are We Forgetting what Natural Sounds Like?

The Turing test may not be holding water. These days, I see so many people on screens and even in the flesh, whose faces seem more and more to mimic the conformed generalisations that AI must rely on to create its effigies. If we humans are imitating machines, in our looks, our expressions and manners, perhaps even in our very thinking, then failing to tell the difference between artificial and natural intelligence is a perfectly plausible result.

The quantisation of rhythm or pitch, can make music robotic. So much music sounds robotic to me. I’m not talking about the heavy-handed, 80’s style, midi robotic sound, which is altogether more fun and less frightening, but a kind of sonic airbrushing that is far more sinister because it is so subtle and not detectable to the rational judging mind. The unease we feel is only in our souls. If we fail to engage our heart and soul in our listening, it will go completely unnoticed. Perhaps it is the reinstatement of this hidden humanity in live performances that stops them from feeling disappointing after the perfected recorded versions we hear all the time.

The Return to Natural Beauty

Musicians must fight this trend for cosmetic perfection and the soullessness it brings. To do this, we must work on our skills. We must practise our ability to engage in real, fluent musical communication and surf the waves of free, surrendered musical expression that has flesh and blood, heart and soul and natural beauty. I believe the trend against music that is sterile and ego-driven is already happening. Let’s champion it at every opportunity and make it grow!

A musician’s perspective on music shaming

When people feel that their musical taste is superior to others’ they are obviously committing a sin of arrogance. It’s fine to be an enthusiastic champion of our beloved genres and artists and to appreciate all their amazing qualities, and equally, there is no sin in saying that certain music is just not your cup of tea, but clearly it is highly offensive to disregard or insult music that others love. Yet this bad behaviour is very common.

We musicians are keenly aware that inevitably some people will not like our music very much. We must accept that simple truth calmly. However, it is very hard to accept people disregarding or disrespecting our work – a painful and all too common experience. One might think that it is just ignorance which lies at the basis of their failure to respect or show interest in our musical endeavours but arrogance and jealousy are also likely culprits. Of course, many of my friends do ask me about how my work creating and teaching music is going. They do this in exactly the same way they would show interest in the work and career of any friend, whatever their chosen field. But often such common friendliness is not extended to musicians. Given that our careers are so much more than just a job but something that we pour our hearts and souls into, it feels like extremely unfriendly behaviour when someone shows no interest in our current projects. Even when I am bold enough to volunteer information, many people tend to respond in a perfunctory way or even just stare blankly back. Why on earth would otherwise caring people be so cruel?

Music used to be something we all did together using a very different awareness of how it functions. We all had a powerful, almost intuitive sense of how rhythmic and tonal patterns are formed and work together to create complex, extended musical structure. The loss of these skills through the tragic demise of folk music in human civilisation leaves a painful social scar. A culture in which an arbitrary selection of musicians are placed on very tall, wobbly pedestals without any clear, objective measure of their deserving generates an undercurrent of resentment and scorn. People are all forced to be nothing more than grateful audience members, listening and admiring passively. Yet they still sense their potential for active participation in music-making. Sadly, the way amateur musicians usually make music is either an act of blind karaoke or by coldly decoding the dots. These approaches are nothing more than mimicry or playing by numbers and only reinforce the unhealthy passive relationship to music. Therefore, the need to have a strong opinion about music, often to the point of offensive chauvinism, is arguably quite understandable for many people.

As unforgivably opinionated and arrogant as music shaming is, it is really just a symptom of a deep cultural deprivation which leaves individuals feeling musically disempowered. It is merely their vain attempt to claw back some of their sense of musical autonomy. My hope is that by propagating training for fluent musicianship skills on the keyboard, more people will feel empowered musically and that a myriad forms of music in all its dazzling diversity and richness may be created and enjoyed by more and more people.

Mannerism and natural expression

Music is a kind of language and just like verbal language, it inevitably has mannerism. Different periods of history and different social circumstances demand different manners. This is equally true of music. Different genres of music have different manners. Classical, jazz and pop styles all have their own mannerism. Listen to a recording from fifty years ago and you will hear different musical mannerism – many aspects of which are common to all genres.

So we cannot avoid manners as if they were something bad and they certainly have their place in helping music be accessible. But it is important to acknowledge that there is something rather objective or even superficial about mannerism in music.

Authentic expression

When a musician feels the music deeply, this is a subjective response and the expressive dynamics that stem from this deep feeling are not dictated by the requirements of the genre or the expressive conventions of the time. This means that authentic expression is a very different thing from manners. It has an inherent depth or power that transcends mannerism completely.

Expression is not an alternative to manners – we use both – but we have to acknowledge that authentic feeling carries far more truth and profundity.

Spontaneous vs. contrived interpretation

When there is no gap between the way musicians feel the music and the way they play or sing it, then we, as listeners, feel the authentic expression. The dynamics used by the musician to generate that expressive quality in the playing is not premeditated but spontaneous and natural.

Manners too can emerge naturally from a kind of social intelligence around the musical setting or use. Manners exist on a kind of spectrum from very blunt, even punk style at one end through to highly conventional, even polite at the other. Of course it is not quite as simple as this: for example, it may be entirely conventional to deliver music of a certain genre in an over-the-top, punk manner.

When expression and manners are used spontaneously rather than in a worked-out, contrived way, there is greater power and immediacy to a performance. Of course, it is perfectly possible that power and immediacy could be considered tasteless in a certain genre of very refined music.

Challenging cultural norms and championing authenticity and spontaneity

As a musician, I see my role as being one that challenges the status quo. Music has limitless depth and serves an important function in helping us deal with the human condition. Life can seem cruel, absurd and very confusing when we try to figure it out using reasoning and logic. But when we frame reality in a musical context, give it rhythm and harmony, then the ebb and flow of the story of life produces pathos, joy, melancholy, exhilaration and all kinds of deep feeling states that heal and unite us in our quest for greater things.

So music can be as nutritious and necessary for thriving as food. And I feel it is therefore very important to try and resist the pull of conventional manners and contrived interpretation in favour of authentic and spontaneous expression in order to ensure that my music contains as much unprocessed, wholesome goodness as possible! This is why I love to make spontaneous improvisation the bedrock of my musical practice.

Musical Meanings

Have we heard it all before?

In our culture, music has become something which we either perform or consume. The focus of music education is upon correct execution. In classical music, it’s all about the interpretation of “great” repertoire. In jazz, it’s all about understanding complex theories concerning scales, keys, chords and rhythms whilst in pop music, it’s all about the making a fashionable commodity – the catchy, the clever, the cool or the quirky. This rather objective way of looking at music makes everything seem a little like karaoke. Of course we all have our favourites and listen to them over and over again – we all have that three-year-old mind inside us that craves the reassurance of the familiar. But sometimes we need new musical stories to experience. I’m always worried when I hear people respond to unfamiliar music by saying rather dismissively, “Oh I don’t know that one!”. Music is not a huge menu of items, some of which we select for ourselves or maybe occasionally try to feed to others, and most of which we ignore. I am sad to say that as people get older, they tend to fall into this pattern. As we get older, it may be advisable to supplement our consciousness with extra portions of curiosity and wonder.

Music can always say something new

Music is in fact a means of expression and communication. It has all the currency and immediacy of language. Music enables us to process life in all its psychological and emotional confusion because it has a deep order which is universally understood. When we see music this way, we realise that listening and making music ourselves can be a very immediate experience, one which directly involves the heart and soul and which connects us. Music can be an act of compassion, love or kindness. When we see beyond the idea of music as fashionable or clever, it becomes simply a medium of human interaction that we need every bit as much as language. Before the industrial revolution set about the demise of folk music, this view was the norm. Music was understood widely in terms of its patterns. Therefore, people could participate fully in musical activities. I think this is why improvisation used to be seen as the key skill of a musician. Now it is rather neglected and discounted except in the rather specialist world of jazz which is usually, I believe, a rather different kind of improvising anyway.

Music can be of course admired for the very opposite of its familiarity or “karaoke” value – its esoteric, inscrutable quality. Some classical and jazz music falls into this category. But whether music is atonal and difficult to fathom or tuneful and accessible, the notion that music can be used as an object ripe for intellectual analysis is, I think, another rather impoverished one. Art and literature suffer less under this kind of scrutiny because they reflect more the external experiences and emotions of life. The inherent subjectivity of music emerges so powerfully whenever we attempt to measure its worth by any objective means: it then becomes a source of petty divisiveness – which seems to me to be the very opposite of its best function. Music unfortunately can bring out the most egotistic side of human nature when treated as intellectual property. Combine this with our tendency to use music as a badge of coolness and we descend into the realms of vacuous vanity.

What makes music good or beautiful?

However, I do think music can be considered “better” when its meanings are more precisely or powerfully conveyed. But to measure this communicative clarity objectively can seem almost impossible and perhaps we just don’t need to anyway. But given that our narcissistic, competitive culture tends to impoverish our experience of music, it does take a certain effort to discard the cultural norms and begin to see that it can be a powerful source of communion, healing and transformation.

The truth is that there is a genuine symmetry and order to how the unfolding patterns of rhythm and tonality work. This logic, when clearly understood by the musician, results in a fluency of communication that makes the music communicate in a highly accessible and potent way. Even if we don’t have the skills to produce musical syntax actively, we all do understand these patterns very well. When we allow ourselves to listen to music in a completely natural way and hear perceptible musical shapes within the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure, we hear music in a purer way. It unfolds more like a story. We don’t look for explicit originality, a clever or cool manner, or even virtuosity; we don’t need to be impressed; we don’t require the music to be familiar or “hooky”; we don’t need to know the name of the musician or the composer; and we definitely don’t need to nod sagely and rub our chin as we analyse and evaluate its merit. We are simply moved instantaneously in the act of listening and simultaneous understanding. And in doing so, we feel ourselves to be understood.