Public Pianos Strike a Chord - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Public Pianos Strike a Chord

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin


Because making beautiful music together with strangers in public is good for the soul — and better for the neighborhood.

Is there someone you see every day but never speak to? A commuter who shares your subway car, a father you run into dropping your child at school, a retiree who shares your love for the local library or a homeless person you worry about on cold evenings? You’re not alone.

In 2008, while sitting in a laundromat, British artist Luke Jerram realized that modern cities are full of “invisible communities” of people who occupy shared spaces but never engage with one another. The world’s busiest and most populated places are often among the loneliest too, so Jerram set out to change that.

Some 43 cities and 1,400 pianos later, street pianos have struck a chord.

He decided to share his love of music by installing multicolored pianos — under the banner “Play Me, I’m Yours ” — in Birmingham, England. Then he took the idea on tour.

Some 43 cities and 1,400 pianos later, it’s clear that Jerram’s idea has, well, struck a chord. People in large and small cities around the globe, including London, Paris, New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Hangzhou, Belfast and São Paulo have tickled the ivories, and Mexico City — one of the world’s biggest urban centers — is up next. 

The pianos are donated by individuals or companies, decorated by local artists and placed in and around high-traffic locations like train stations, neighborhood squares, museums and parks. They generally stay in place for two to three weeks, attracting hundreds of thousands of musicians and many more listeners, before being removed and passed on to retirement homes, youth centers and other community facilities. 

The idea, says Jerram, is that the pianos serve as a “blank canvas for the public to express themselves.”

What drives “Play Me, I’m Yours” is the belief that music has the power to unite. When you leave a really awesome live concert, you feel closer to the musicians and to the people who shared it with you, even if they number in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately, music is highly circumscribed in the modern city. Musicians need permits to play publicly, concert prices are high and getting higher and, perhaps worst of all, most of the music we listen to is locked up in earbuds, making for a pretty solitary experience.

Jerram’s pianos are an equal opportunity to play and share music, whether you’re a 19-year-old studying contemporary jazz or a 90-year-old fan of ragtime. What’s more, different age groups and social groups can collaborate by playing duets or simply enjoying each other’s music. 

In the process, the stranger you used to stand next to on the train platform is now the guy you created an intergenerational mash-up with. Street pianos may be a small step, but with 6 million people in cities around the world already participating, communities are clearly taking note.

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