David R. Sands of the Washington Times recently published this article about our changing cultural landscape entitled “Sheet Music’s Last Note.” In it, he informs us that the last issue of America’s only magazine providing its readers with piano sheet music expired last autumn.  In thirty-six years years, Sheet Music Magazine had printed nearly 3,000 songs.  At its height, the magazine had 150,000 subscribers who received a copy every two months. 

What killed the Sheet Music?  Accordingly to the publisher, Ed Shanaphy, his magazine…

…couldn’t survive a perfect storm of factors gathering in recent years, from a bad economy, falling piano sales and the rise of online downloading services for sheet music to the decline of a generation that played piano for fun and the rise of a generation that gets into music through earbuds and prefers its musical scores auto-translated into audio online.

That is quite a combination of technological and social change. 

The article has some fascinating figures on piano sales in the United States.  In 1909, 360,000 pianos were sold in America with a population of 90.5 million.  In 1969 (see diagram), there were 220,000 sold (pop. 220 million).  Finally, in 2007, there 315 million people in the country, but sales totaled only 62,500. 

The 1909 figure is useful because it represents a time when there were no/few recorded music players, no radios, etc.  If you wanted to have musical entertainment, you had to do it yourself or pay someone to play it live.  More instructive is 1969 when we had high quality FM radio and very good stereo recordings for sale.  Since then, piano sales have really plunged.

What does it mean?  Are we watching a decline of cultural literacy.  Perhaps, it just represents a decline of the piano relative to other instruments, but I doubt it.

As a consumer of music, I know that what I listen to – just in terms of the sound quality – seems greatly inferior to my parents’ high fidelity stereo.  People used to spend a fortune on sound equipment.  That doesn’t seem to happen now.  There has been a huge shift to video technology with ever-better formats like blu-ray.  Does an audio analog (ha-ha, no irony intended) of blu-ray exist?  The world seems to be moving in the opposite direction.  MP3 files aren’t even as good as the much-criticized recordings on CDs.  Now I listen to classical music using the speakers on my Kindle.  Sound quality may not matter with rap, but it matters if you want to hear the percussion instruments in Carmen.  True that, but I just paid $1.99 for 13 hours of some composer whose music is play by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra and sits on my cloud.  I can listen any place that has wi-fi.  That enhances my cultural literacy.

I have no great theory, but David Sands’ article will make you think a bit.  How has your appreciation and interaction with quality music changed?  For better, worse?  Do you care?