Looking at the Piano through the Sociological Imagination
The sociological imagination is the consideration of all of the different kinds of historical and cultural factors that go into a society’s perception of something. Generally speaking, it’s these factors that enables any sort of relationship between person, idea, or object. Rather than an idea or concept, the sociological imagination serves as a new mindset that looks and analyzes things at a wider, broader, and big picture way. Looking at today’s society, just about every single object imaginable has been shaped a certain way due to social structure and history, and one of the more interesting objects in the scope of the sociological imagination would be the piano, and the role that it holds.
To start, the piano took a variety of different forms in the past, from instruments like the clavichord, spinet, or the more direct descendent, the harpsichord. The piano would not become the instrument that is known today until the 1710’s when Cristofori introduced the hammer action to the harpsichord, deeming it as the new pianoforte (Rejino). While the concept has gone through improvements and additions over the next 300 years, the basic design and premise remains largely the same as today’s modern piano. However, what has changed is the piano’s uses, reputation, and its overall impact on music and culture. During the classical and romantic musical time periods, the piano was used primarily for solos and orchestras and general entertainment, and at the same time known as one of the most widely used instruments. While its applications can still be applied with its traditional uses, the presence of the piano has spread to just about every corner of music itself. For aspiring musicians of any instrument, basic knowledge of the piano is generally considered a necessity, as it provides a solid foundation of music theory as well as a better understanding of the layout of notes on a grand staff, and the concept of pitch. It’s for these reasons that many start off with the piano, learning the fundamentals of music before branching off to other instruments. It’s also in this accessibility that makes the piano so prominent in society. With the introduction of electronic keyboards, consumers are given a much cheaper alternative than the expensive acoustic piano. While it sacrifices the rich authentic sound of a grand piano, electronic keyboards offer a variety of different modes, options, and instrument sounds. In addition, playing the piano became less and less significant as a form of entertainment. On the other hand, pianos were utilized more from a creative standpoint, seeing as how the electronic keyboard and its features serve as one of the main tools used by today’s artists. More specifically, artists use MIDI keyboards that connect to a computer, making it possible to record music in a form that allows for easy note editing, flexible orchestration, and song arrangement.
Along with a technical evolution, the piano has also experienced a social evolution, seen as a changing relationship with an individual’s identity. Class and gender are several of the main aspects of identity that the piano is involved with, mainly as a result of its historical roles. For instance, during the ages of classical music, pianos were very often associated with women, and as such, girls were seen playing the instrument more commonly than boys. There are several reasons for this. Women were considered more attractive and desirable if they could play the piano, as well as the fact that the piano was a symbol of social status, and the ability to play the piano stood as a testament to a woman’s marriageability. Society in the 1700s heavily discouraged women taking on careers of their own, thus were forced to try and marry into successful families. The piano played a fair role in the quality of women back then, and likely had impact on marriages. In addition, the instrument was a status symbol, where generally those that could play the piano, or those that listened to classical music were considered to be high class. Generally speaking, association of any kind to piano would be considered a high class activity. Looking at society today, we see that the social role is quite different. The class aspect of identity shifted from playing and listening to the piano to simply owning an instrument in one’s household. Often times, a family will own a piano for its appearance despite not knowing how to play it. In addition, the gender aspect of piano has been largely downplayed, as its very common to see both boys and girls playing it.
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