In praise of street pianos

Tottering back through Canary Wharf after a boozy lunch with friends in Docklands, I came upon a street piano in a clinically-lit walkway in the Jubilee shopping centre. “Why don’t you play it?” my husband suggested and tanked up on too much lunchtime Prosecco, I pulled out the score of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece (which I just happened to have in my handbag) and sat down on the wonky piano stool. The corridor acoustic was rather good and about half way through my “performance”, I was aware of a passerby pausing to listen. Afterwards he said, “that was really beautiful. Thank you!“, and I continued on my way to the tube station.

Street or public pianos are now quite commonplace, often located in railways stations or public spaces for anyone to play. The first public piano was in Sheffield in 2003, with a friendly “Play me” sign on it. It proved hugely popular and in 2008 the Play Me I’m Yours project, created by artist Luke Jerram, was first commissioned in Birmingham, UK, with 15 street pianos located across the city. Within just a few weeks it was estimated that over 140,000 people played or listened to music from the pianos. The project has since gone from strength to strength, with more than 1900 street pianos located in 70 cities worldwide. In 2017 Transport for London (TfL), in partnership with Yamaha, launched  the #Platform88 scheme to make pianos available at stations for people to play. During the two-year run of #Platform88, the pianos will ‘travel’ around the TfL network to various stations, giving commuters, tourists et al the opportunity to exercise their musical talents. At the end of the scheme the pianos will be donated to charity.

A piano asks to be played and is a wonderful reminder of the nature of play and the pleasure of making music, regardless of genre. Most people passing by a piano can’t help but strike a few notes, improvise a riff, or play a whole piece. A street piano invites us to pause, do something spontaneous, bring pleasure to others and enjoy ourselves. Street pianos attract players of all ages and abilities – Elton John and the Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa* have both played the street piano at St Pancras Station, amongst countless others. Members of a piano club I’m connected with made a special club trip to the street piano at St Pancras to perform exam pieces and other repertoire, treating the experience as an important performance opportunity.

A rather grumpy article in The Times recently suggested that street pianos encourage “attention-seeking” and that “unless it’s a child, the sight of someone expertly playing a Mozart piano concerto next to a branch of Upper Crust” is a cringe-inducing experience. The many reactions to this article reveal that the author was way off the mark (and possibly even secretly envious of anyone who can simply sit down and play!), and that most people think street pianos are a thoroughly good thing, offering the opportunity to experience and share music, and adding a different dimension to the activity of “performance”. And in an age where music provision in our schools is being seriously eroded, surely we should encourage and celebrate this kind of participatory music making?

Never sat down at one, but still I love ‘em

– Marc-Andre Hamelin, concert pianist

Another commentator tweeted that for “a marginal group of people…..these pianos are a kind of aqualung”, implying that people are driven to play street pianos out of a desperate need, as if their lives depend upon it. And so what if they do? Music has known therapeutic benefits and if some people find comfort or distraction from the exigencies of life by playing the piano – or indeed any other instrument – who are we to criticise them?

For many people, street pianos offer a special kind of pleasure, an escape from the everyday, a chance share music with others, or simply to practise. Several people, including a number of professional pianists, who responded to the original Times article, highlighted the usefulness of street pianos for practising while waiting for a train, especially if one doesn’t have access to an acoustic piano at home.

I these endorsements from pianist friends and colleagues more than confirm the positives of street pianos:

For those of us of a very nervous performance disposition, these are GREAT. For attracting more people to music making rather than the commercialised electronic production and marketing the general public THINK is music, even better.

– David, advanced amateur pianist

I love them, for the simple fact that they are a wonderful pattern interrupt, particularly when they are placed in busy stations or clinical walkways. So many people are rushing from place to place in a hollow shell of a body, absorbed in their own worries, their ego and their misery, not even slowing down to notice someone else who may be struggling with their luggage……A piano unites and connects people and makes you question where you are, it takes you out of automatic mode and into a new fresh perspective.

– Christina Cooper, piano teacher and cognitive hynotherapist

I’ve found street pianos are a great way to connect with people who may never have come to a concert before

– Daniel Roberts, concert pianist

I have used these pianos sometimes for practice while waiting for a train traveling away or a warm up waiting for a train going straight to a concert.

– Ieva Dubova, pianist

I love street pianos because of the spontaneity of them: they go to the heart of making music as a social entity 

– David Barton, music teacher

I LOVE them and many of my students have really grown in confidence because of them. I feel they are a really great thing!

– Karen Marshall, music teacher and writer

Global map of street pianos


*Video by Geoff Cox

Transport for London (TfL), in partnership with Yamaha, today 16 November 2017 launched a programme which will make three pianos available at stations for customers to play. The first, placed at Tottenham Court Road, was launched with a performance by multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Tokio Myers.

The two-year project named #Platform88 takes its name from the number of keys on a standard piano and provides opportunities for musicians to play and entertain their fellow passengers.

During the two-year run of #Platform88, the pianos will ‘travel’ around the network to various stations, giving a range of our customers the opportunity to show off their musical talents. At the end of the scheme the pianos will be donated to charity.

One piano will be auctioned off to benefit the charity Railway Children which supports children alone and at risk on the streets in the UK, Africa and India. The remaining two pianos will be given to the London Music Fund and Music for All to pass on to a worthy school or young individual to help encourage their musical journeys.

Mark Wild, Managing Director, London Underground, said: “Music has been a part of Tube travel for many years now, with busking and classical music featuring at many of our stations, and we are always looking for new ways to improve our customers journeys.  This project will bring music to some of our key stations, generate money for charity and also offer a platform for aspiring musicians to perform to some of the many thousands of customers who use our network every day.”

Charles Bozon from Yamaha Music UK said, “Our global Yamaha philosophy is to enrich lives through music, and #Platform88 is the perfect opportunity to connect to huge numbers of music fans and players and to create a vibrant new community – and hopefully discover some new talent along the way.”

Tokio Myers said: “My musical journey to this point has been full of surprises, chance moments and happy coincidences. Everyone loves listening to music and it’s my passion to inspire more people to move from listening to creating their own music. #Platform88 is a brilliant, fun way of doing this.”


Two more Yamaha pianos will be launched by two well-known recording artists in support of #Platform88 before Christmas. Each of the pianos boasts a specially commissioned, eye-catching design that guarantees the instruments are destined to become part of London’s transport and music memorabilia.

Yamaha is a successful manufacturer of musical instruments for professional and amateur musicians with a philosophy of cultural enrichment through music and excellence in the arts. It partners its strong heritage of traditional instrument craftsmanship with leading musicians, educators, and technicians to inspire innovation and design in new instruments. The company has a huge range of creative partnerships with many artists and learning providers throughout Europe.

(source: TfL press)