The Piano: A Musical Treasure Chest

The wooden cases of pianos resemble nothing so much as old treasure chests.

Only, instead of being buried under the sand of a beach on a distant, desert island, or being hidden away in some pirate’s cove, they have been left in full view in the parlour. There they remain, motionless amongst crashing waves of soft furnishings, the unending heat from the tropical sun replaced by the dry consistency of gas-fired central heating.

When opened up, these musical treasure chests are full of bounteous riches: heavy, colourful fabrics; delicate leatherwork; vast quantities of forged metal; and intricately carved pieces of wood, as finely crafted as any figurine.

Moreover, these various items, so beautiful in their own right, are always arranged in these wooden chests in such a way that they set off each other’s beauty. They highlight each other’s usefulness, working together to form a treasure that is immeasurably greater still – a piano action.

My own piano is old and humble. It is no less a secret treasure chest for that. The fabrics in its action, and on the surrounding case work, look resplendent in their deeply opulent shades. Here, there is felt of sapphire blue; there, fabric of deep emerald green, rich and satisfying. And what makes each jewel-like strip so perfect is that it has been given just the right setting. It has been cut to the perfect length and then carefully laid on wood or iron.

Around the inside of the case itself, and on the underside of the chest’s lid, there is a strip of braiding, as red as the reddest rubies. It’s like something that once belonged on a royal robe.

Such wonders! Such delights! And yet, even after you have opened up a piano’s wooden box and taken in the splendour of these jewel-like pieces, there is still more to discover. These musical treasure chests contain secret sections that are hidden from sight. For example, if you lift up the keys you will find still more colour – in my piano’s case, felt rings in that same emerald green, slotted over metal pins.

In stories of shipwrecks and buried treasure, old chests sometimes contain maps to lost locations or secret letters hidden by their owners. The musical treasure chests that are piano cases also contain a wealth of written texts, many written in cypher and most forgotten. They contain cryptic communications intended to be read only by those in the know, by those who can crack their enigmatic codes of letters and numbers. There are hand-scrawled marks, each identifying an individual key, hammer, or other, smaller part of the action. There are scraps of paper, used as washers to raise the level of the key beds.  Then there are all those tuners' marks, evidence that this hoard has been inspected and audited on occasion.

In addition, there are those date stamps that have been impressed upon the action, frame and keys themselves, like those details stamped onto gold coins at the mint. These tell us when then instrument was itself minted, when (and sometimes where) its parts were forged.

Every now and again I like to open the case of my piano. Whenever I stare at the riches this hardwood chest contains I feel like I’ve discovered this trove anew. The metalwork glints like silver in the light filtering through the blinds. The hundred-year old wood seems like a precious carving.

It is rich treasure indeed.

© James Holden 2013