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!

Mendelssohn – Song Without Words op.38 no.6 in A Flat Major

This Mendelssohn Song without Words is a beautiful duet with a gorgeous flowing accompaniment. The sense of arrival when the melody reaches its full-blooded summit and also the quiet pizzicato bass notes towards the end are both powerful in very different ways.

Nocturne No. 11 in G minor by Phil Best from album ‘Nocturnal’

My Nocturne No. 11 in G minor is one of the 11 Nocturnes that feature in my forthcoming album ‘Nocturnal’ to be released on February 18th. The album version is the original unplanned improvisation, but having created a score, I play it for you here.

Improvisation – Before Dawn

Another unplanned improvisation – this time tonally simpler, diatonic, very minor with a dark and wistful mood.

The new C. Bechstein Digital Grand from Pianoteq

I’ve been playing with this new piano model – the new C. Bechstein Digital Grand from Pianoteq – that faithfully captures the richness, brilliance and sweetness of this wonderful piano.

Improvisation – Why say such things?

This is an unplanned improvisation. I’d been pondering what a pointless charade politics can become with individuals scoring points off each other rather than using intelligence to find solutions.

So the darkness of the mood and the twisted nature of the complex, jazzy impressionistic tonality arise as my feelings of disappointment and resentment are untangled and resolved by musical patterns, easing my mind.

Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu

The Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu is one of those iconic pieces of the classical piano repertoire. It is arguably played too much so why have I added my performance? I think the infinite ways a piece can change in the hands of different musicians is actually very interesting. My version is fast but lyrical and I search for an unexaggerated and natural romanticism and warmth.

Debussy – Clair de Lune

I love the way Debussy’s Clair de Lune has an effortless natural flow. It’s a challenging piece as it needs to be expressive but exaggeration spoils its authentic felling of wistful longing. This famous masterpiece remains forever fresh and disarmingly beautiful.