This just in: people are still buying physical music scores and playing tunes on actual pianos. You heard it here first. They’re not downloading it (well, some are, but shhh) and playing it on their iPad, they’re actively opening a book, sitting down at a piano and getting stuck in. The world is in shock.
Perhaps it’s the infinite timelessness of the piano and its players that protect it from the force of digitalisation? Perhaps it’s the social and historical artistry of the instrument or, alternatively, the inarguable fact that an iPad can never emulate the mahogany consonance of a Bösendorfer? Whatever it is, the day I go to a classical concert and the pianist whips out an iPad is the day I lose the little faith I have left in the music industry. Alas, if all art were to go digital, what would become of the physical and, more importantly, the emotional elements of music?
Whether eager amateurs want to take on the Top 40 or croon along to the classics, sheet music legends are being born every day, which is a refreshing reality. Interestingly, the masters of the music scene (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Louis Armstrong…) remain steadfastly popular. Sure, there are some record-breakingly successful contemporary artists like Adele and Jar of Hearts singer Christina Perri who can shake up the sheet-music snow-globe, but the legacy of a legend is infallible. People love to learn the classics (and I don’t mean Chopin or Beethoven). So what, if anything, do these sheet music heroes have in common and can their popularity tell us anything about modern musicians?
Melts like Lemon Drops
It’s the first song every would-be pianist attempts to play and has set the bar for all the tunes that preceded it. It’s been covered, copied and ‘mashed up’ more times than Julie London’s Cry Me a River and is synonymous with munchkins, yellow brick roads and big dreamers. Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow recently re-entered the charts when it was reimagined by larger-than-life ukulele lover Israel Kamakawiwoo’ole (though my personal favourite is by Eva Cassidy) setting the timeless standard of musical longevity to the sweet simplicity of a ukulele (Wizard of Oz was released in 1939!). But what does the effortlessness of the melody and the aspirational quality of the lyrics tell us about classic sheet music?
Well, everybody wants to believe that the dreams that they dare to dream really do come true, that’s what living is all about, but it’s interesting to note that this profound tone is extremely popular in the sheet music industry. It seems we’re all suckers for a sentimental power ballad, especially when it comes to playing the tune ourselves. Just take a look at some of these best-selling pieces of sheet music and their accompanying lyrics (by year).
“Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.” Imagine – John Lennon (1971)
“Maybe there's a God above / all I've ever learned from love / was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.” Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen (1984)
“You used to captivate me / By your resonating light / Now I'm bound by the life you left behind.” My Immortal – Evanescence (2003)
“Don't forget me, I beg / I remember you said / sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.” Someone Like You – Adele (2011)
With eyes closed tight and lungs filled with a soulful inhale, these tender melodies are frequently impregnating the air with raw emotion. It’s remarkable, then, that the most popular music to learn is the stuff with real depth and humanity. Whilst there’s always a time and a place for Knees Up Mother Brown and Chopsticks (aka the novelty songs that lack substance), the emotional ones are always the most popular. And why? Because we’re emotionally motivated beings, of course, and the latest digital mod-con cannot take that away from us.
After all, music not only soothes painful emotion, it gives life depth, canonises happiness and encourages us to keep dreaming. It’s important, for many, to believe that there is somewhere over the rainbow and music serves to transport us there.
Evidently, those who buy sheet music are eager to sculpt their own transportation. This gives them the power to share the humanity of their favourite piece and simultaneously, mould the melody with a weight of their own. This way, music takes a different shape and becomes inherently a part of the musicians emotional sphere and, therefore, inherently a part of them. And there’s nothing remotely desensitised about that.