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How the toy piano moved from children’s play to a classical concert hall

Children’s toys may not seem like a candidate for a classical concert hall. However, every year thousands of musicians from around the world gather at festivals, conferences and concerts dedicated to toy pianos.

These composers and performers explore their sound, range, and playing techniques, discuss the latest developments in toy piano music, and play new songs.

In addition to many festivals in the United States and Germany, both Italy and South Korea have hosted the first toy piano festivals in recent years.

Pop artists such as Bruno Mars and groups such as Coldplay have brought a larger audience to what was once considered a niche and experimental instrumental use. If you search for “toy pianos” or “small pianos” on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll find countless posts featuring performers and composers using and discussing instruments.

Playful and serious music

Despite being designed and sold for children and families, toy pianos have been used for decades to write everything from concertos to pop songs.

French composer Yann Tiersen prominently used one to represent the inner child of the title character in the score of the 2001 movie “Amelie”.

Neil Diamond’s song, Shiloh, is one of the earliest pop songs featuring a toy piano (sounds around 2:28 on the bridge).

And John Cage’s 1940s toy piano suite was a decisive moment in the mid-20th century, with a serious take on writing for the piano and a playful spin. The harsh boundaries of music art, which reached its limits of seriousness in the 1920s and 1930s, were beginning to collapse.

This mix of traditional “high music” with boys, populists, nappies, or crafts that may be considered domestic has become more common and more exciting.

Play and experiment

The key range of a toy piano is usually 12 to 36, which is about a quarter of that of a full piano (although there are smaller and larger examples).

These acoustic instruments are made from a wooden or plastic frame. When a small hammer hits an internal tube or a flat piece of metal, it makes a bell-like sound.

Unlike typical pianos, toy pianos are rarely perfectly tuned and can be a little audible to the ear, but many are due to their small size, different colors, and quirky, inconsistent sounds. I have to be fascinated.

With a connection between its history and childhood thoughts, this instrument is commonly used to convey a sense of innocence and nostalgia musically.

Traditionally, the composition of artistic music can be very normative and restricted. Traditional music schools and college writing classes teach you how to write what you can and cannot do with an instrument, but something about a toy piano invites play and experimentation.

All toy pianos are different

Unlike many instruments used in composition, toy pianos are not standardized around the world.

There are dozens of manufacturers that use a variety of technologies and materials that give every toy piano a unique sound, range, and range. This makes writing piano music a bit random, but for many of us there is fun.

If you write a song for a toy piano and performers in other parts of the world have enough keys on the instrument, they can play your song in their own way. It’s like a singer covering a song with his own voice.

The composer gives up some control. This is in contrast to the romantic and modernist ideas that positioned the composer as a genius who should never change.

Many composers can collect toy pianos and play with different sounds. Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin became known as a toy piano woman at a toy store in Sydney after purchasing eight in a row. I’m modest up to 5 years old and resisting the purchase of a 6th person.

Toy piano specialists are becoming more common as demanding performers and composers.

Italian specialist Antonio Lofredo has performed several times in Australia and has released numerous recordings with Australian art music label Willipan. Recordings of the work of her Australian composer can be found here on Spotify.

Toy virtuoso Margaret Ren Tan was scheduled to play a toy piano at the Sydney Opera House this year, but the concert was postponed due to COVID-19.

As Margaret Ren Tan himself states:

I continue to be deeply intrigued by the magical overtones of a toy piano, the charm of hypnosis, and above all its off-key heartfelt stuff. In the words of the author, John David Morley, “the sound rises slightly from the keys of the stairs and falls asleep.” A friend of my composer was similarly confused by this modest little instrument and driven by enthusiastic creativity.

Escape from a rigid world

Artists are always looking for new ways to challenge and surprise their audience. What is accepted and what is not accepted on the concert stage is constantly changing, and the rise of toy pianos suggests that we are ready to welcome new sounds and new instruments into the relatively closed world of classical music. I have.

For many composers, the toy piano offers more than a symbolic expression of childhood — it provides an exciting escape from the rigorous and rigorous world of formal contemporary art music.


Paul Smith, Senior Music Instructor, University of New England

This article has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Please read the original article.

How the toy piano moved from children’s play to a classical concert hall

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