Margaret Leng Tan

The Art of the Toy Piano


© GlassPages, 1997

Cover Picture

CD Cover (Michael Dames)




  1. Stephen Montague "Mirabella (a Tarantella)" (3:00).
  2. John Lenon - Paul McCartney "Eleanor Rigby" (2:23).
  3. Toby Twining "Satie Blues" (6:03).
  4. Jed Distler "Three Landscapes for Peter Wyer" (5:42).
  5. Philip Glass "Modern Love Waltz" (3:25)
    [1977, transcribed for 2 toy pianos by Margaret Leng Tan].
  6. David Lang "Miracle Ear" (3:55).
  7. Toby Twining "Nightmare Rag" (3:51).
  8. Julia Wolfe "East Broadway" (3:30).
  9. Beethoven "Sonata in C-sharp minor (Moonlight)" (4:37).
  10. Guy Klucevsek "Sweet Chinoiserie" (7:15).
  11. Raphael Mostel "Star-Spangled Etude #3 (Furling Banner"); (1:15).
  12. Erik Satie "Gymnopédie No. 3" (2:31).


In Philadelphia, 1872, the German immigrant Albert Schoenhut began manufacturing toy pianos according to his own newly-invented design. Wooden mallets struck sounding bars made of metal, replacing the fragile glass sounding-pieces used in toy pianos at that time. His new instrument could better withstand a child's rough handling and its gamelan-like timbre is the sound of the toy piano as we know it today. By 1935, the A. Schoenhut Company had produced over forty styles and sizes of the toy instrument with prices ranging from fifty cents to twenty-five dollars --"a piano for every purse and taste", boasted its 1903 catalogue.

The toy piano was intended as an educational tool. The more expensive models stood nineteen to twenty-four inches tall, had raised black notes instead of imitation painted ones, full-width wooden keys and a range of two to three octaves. An instruction manual taught a child such American favorites as Home Sweet Home and Yankee Doodle.

In 1948, John Cage composed his whimsical Suite for Toy Piano which I have recorded on my latest Cage album, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle. Using nine consecutive white notes, this became the first "serious" piece ever written for a toy piano. When I performed this work in 1993, I scoured thrift and antique shops and was fortunate to unearth a Jaymar two-octave upright piano in mint condition. (Jaymar was a rival toy piano manufacturer to Schoenhut in the 1940's, hence toy pianos bearing the Schoenhut or Jaymar name could be regarded as Lilliputian equivalents to Steinway and Baldwin. During the 1950's, however, the two toy piano companies merged and because it was a joint venture, some pianos bore the name "Schoenhut", others "Jaymar".) Since finding this first toy piano, I have acquired several others including a thirty-seven-key Schoenhut toy grand piano crafted for me in 1995 by Jaymar Toys (recently renamed "Schoenhut Piano Company").

I remain wholeheartedly intrigued by the toy piano's magical overtones, hypnotic charm, and not least, its off-key poignancy. In the words of author John David Morley, "Sound combed from the keys of a stairway ascending faintly into sleep". My composer-friends were similarly beguiled and driven to frenzied heights of creativity by this modest little instrument. What a deceptively simple mechanism -plastic toy hammers hitting steel rods! Albert Schoenhut could hardly have envisaged that at the close of the next century, his brainchild would have been elevated from a treasured plaything to a bona fide musical instrument.

-Margaret Leng Tan © 1997.


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