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David and Art - The Numbers Tell a Story

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

When people play an instrument, they develop the ability to understand what’s going on when they listen to other musicians. The opposite is also true.

One of the many things that always catches students’ attention in my “US since the Civil War” class is when I tell them that back during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was pop music just like today, with hits that everybody knew. But then I tell them that in that age, people got their pop music through purchasing copies of sheet music instead of by downloading or streaming. You can see them putting together in their heads the realization that if you, or someone you know, couldn’t play an instrument, or read music, then you couldn’t listen to the latest hit.

Today, more and more, music is, for lack of a better term, a spectator art form instead of a participatory one. So, even people who enjoy it and follow it avidly are now less likely to have much insight into how music is played. We’re losing a particular kind of knowledge.

Last week we talked about the drop in sales of pianos over the second half of the 20th century. But pianos aren’t the only way for people to play music of course. Guitar players listening to rock-and-roll and then figuring out riffs and chord progressions are participating in an art form, too. But recently guitars have shown the same decline in sales as pianos. In 2017, the Washington Post reported on what it described as the “slow secret death of the six-string electric,” with sales falling by a third over the previous decade. No less a luminary than Paul McCartney himself reflected that it seemed like no one wanted to pick up a guitar and learn to play like he did when he was young.

But then, if you’re one who would like to see more participatory music in the United States, there came a glimmer of hope. Instrument sales since the pandemic have turned around a bit. In 2020, guitar sales in the United States increased almost 60% from the year before. According to famed guitar maker Fender, a whopping 16 million people took up the guitar during COVID lockdowns. 62% of those said that it was the isolation during the pandemic that influenced their decision. 72% percent of those new players were between the age of 13 and 34. In 2021, piano sales increased by about 40% over 2020—a jump from roughly 21,000 to 29,000.

I’m not sure if such trends will continue at all but, at least in the short term it’s worth taking note of and worth celebrating, particularly if you're someone who wants American culture to be more participatory, and for more people to have some bit of insight as to what’s really going on when someone is playing an instrument.