What Does the Piano Symbolize in “The Piano Lesson”? Understanding the Significance of the Musical Instrument

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Piano Lesson, written by August Wilson, is a captivating story that explores the complexities of African-American history. The play takes place in Pittsburgh and around the South, in the 1930s, and centers around the history of an old piano, which has been in the Charles family for hundreds of years. The piano represents more than just a simple musical instrument; it is a symbol of heritage, identity, and legacy for the Charles family.

Throughout the play, the piano serves as a connection between the past, present, and future generations of the Charles family. It’s an embodiment of family history, a tangible link to their ancestors, and a crucial piece of their heritage. The piano carries the memories of the Charles family, passed down from generation to generation, and it’s more than just a piece of wood and ivory. It symbolizes resilience, strength, and the struggle African Americans have faced in preserving their heritage throughout history.

As the play progresses, the significance of the piano becomes more apparent. The family must decide whether to keep the piano as part of their legacy or sell it to gain financial stability. The piano, in this sense, becomes a symbolic representation of two opposing forces: preserving an ancestral history versus ensuring one’s survival in present-day society. The ultimate decision lies in how the characters interpret its meaning and what it represents, which unfolds in a gripping tale of inheritance, belonging, and legacy.

The historical significance of the piano in African American culture

The piano has been an integral part of African American culture since the late 18th century. During this period, slave owners introduced the piano to their plantations as a form of entertainment for their families. Slaves who worked in the household were trained to play these pianos for their masters’ amusement, but they soon discovered the instrument’s true potential.

Slaves who were allowed to play the piano quickly realized that its unique sound and versatility could be used to express their feelings and experiences. They used the piano as a tool for communication, teaching their stories and struggles to others through music. It soon became a symbol of freedom and resistance for the African American community.

As African Americans were freed from slavery, they began to embrace the instruments, bringing their unique style to the piano and infusing it with their own cultural identity. The piano became a powerful symbol of racial pride and a means of expression for African American musicians, enabling them to create a distinct and influential sound that continues to inspire generations today.

Ways in which the piano was used within African American culture

  • The piano was used as a means of communication
  • The piano became a symbol of resistance and freedom
  • African American musicians infused their cultural identity into the piano’s sound

How the piano impacted African American music

The influence of the piano on African American music cannot be overstated. It has been used in a variety of musical genres, including gospel, blues, jazz, and R&B. African American pianists such as Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, and Ray Charles transformed the piano into an instrument of innovation, creating new sounds and experimenting with unique styles that have continued to shape and define modern music.

In addition to its musical influence, the piano played a significant role in the civil rights movement. African American musicians used their music as a form of protest and as a means of inspiring social change. Their songs became anthems of the movement, providing hope, inspiration, and a rallying cry for those fighting for equal rights and justice.

African American pianists who impacted music history

Name Genre Influential Works
Art Tatum Jazz “Tea for Two,” “Tiger Rag,” “How High the Moon”
Thelonious Monk Jazz “Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Blue Monk”
Ray Charles R&B/Soul “What’d I Say,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack”

These African American pianists left an indelible mark on music history, transforming the piano into a symbol of the African American experience.

The Connection Between the Piano and Family Heritage

In August Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, the piano represents the Charles family’s cultural heritage. The piano has been in their family for generations and symbolizes their connection to their ancestors and cultural roots. The Charles family has a complicated relationship with the piano, as it also represents their painful past.

  • The piano as a family heirloom: The piano was brought to America by the Charles’ ancestors who were slaves. The family has kept the piano as a symbol of their cultural heritage, and it represents their past and the legacy of their ancestors. The family believes that the piano is worth more than just its monetary value as it connects them to their history.
  • The piano as a source of conflict: The piano represents a painful past for the Charles family. Berniece, the protagonist, resists selling the piano as she believes it will break the connection between their family and their ancestors. Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother, wants to sell the piano in order to buy land and bring his family out of poverty. The piano is the root of their conflict, and their disagreement highlights the different values they have placed on it.
  • The piano as a pathway to healing: The piano can also represent a pathway to healing and forgiveness. In the final scene of the play, Berniece finally agrees to play the piano and uses it to communicate with her ancestors. The piano becomes a way for her to connect with her roots, and she is able to move past the pain and trauma associated with it. Through the piano, Berniece and Boy Willie are able to reconcile and come to a deeper understanding of each other.

Overall, the piano in The Piano Lesson symbolizes the Charles family’s cultural heritage and their connection to their ancestors. It represents a complicated relationship between the family and their past, and ultimately serves as a pathway to healing and reconciliation.

The role of music in expressing emotions and memories

In August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson, music is used as a way to express emotions and memories in several ways. Through the character of Berniece, the piano serves as a powerful symbol of her family history and the pain and struggle it represents. Berniece refuses to sell the piano, despite her brother Boy Willie’s insistence that it could be used to buy the family farm. For her, the piano is more than a mere instrument – it represents both the legacy of her family and the traumatic events of their past.

Music is also used in the play to express emotions that words cannot convey. Throughout the play, characters use music to communicate their feelings to each other and to the audience. In the climactic scene where Boy Willie attempts to exorcise the ghost of Sutter from Berniece’s house, music is used to intensify the emotional impact of the moment. As Boy Willie sings, his anger and pain are conveyed through the power of his voice.

Ways music expresses emotions and memories

  • Conveying emotions that words cannot express
  • Representing family history and legacy
  • Intensifying emotional impact in a scene

The use of the piano in The Piano Lesson

For Berniece, the piano represents both the triumphs and tragedies of her family history. As a slave, her great-grandfather carved the piano with images from Africa as a symbol of his roots and a connection to his past. Berniece sees the piano as both a physical representation of her family’s legacy as well as a source of pain. She believes that her ancestors suffered because they were forced to work as slaves, and she does not want to forget their pain. For her, music is a way to remember the past and honor her family’s history.

Boy Willie, on the other hand, sees the piano as a means to an end. He wants to sell it in order to buy the family farm, which he sees as a way to secure a future for himself and his family. He does not understand the significance of the piano to Berniece and is baffled by her refusal to part with it. For him, music is a tool to achieve an end – in this case, financial security.

Berniece Boy Willie
Sees the piano as a symbol of family legacy and pain Sees the piano as a means to financial security
Believes music is a way to remember the past Believes music is a tool to achieve an end


The role of music in expressing emotions and memories is central to The Piano Lesson. Through the character of Berniece, we see how music can represent a family’s legacy and a source of pain. We also see how music can be used to intensify emotions and convey feelings that words cannot express. By exploring the different ways in which music functions in the play, we gain a deeper understanding of the themes of family, legacy, and trauma that run throughout The Piano Lesson.

The Conflict between Monetary Gain and Cultural Preservation

In August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” the piano serves as a symbol of the tension between monetary gain and cultural identity. The piano is a valuable commodity, but it also carries a deep history as an artifact of African-American culture and enslavement. The play centers on the conflict between siblings Berniece and Boy Willie, who have different ideas about the piano’s significance and what to do with it.

  • Berniece believes that the piano represents their family’s history, and she refuses to sell it despite financial difficulties. She sees the piano as a way to preserve their cultural identity and pass on their ancestors’ stories to future generations.
  • Boy Willie, on the other hand, sees the piano as a means of achieving monetary gain and moving up in society. He wants to sell it to purchase land and start a farm, which he views as a way to break free from the cycle of poverty that has plagued their family.
  • Their conflict represents the struggle faced by many African Americans in America, as they balance the need to create economic stability with the importance of preserving their cultural heritage.

The tension between monetary gain and cultural preservation is further complicated by the history of slavery, which saw the exploitation of black labor for the profit of white slave owners. The piano, as an artifact of that history, carries with it the memories of that exploitation and the resilience of those who survived it.

The significance of the piano as a symbol of cultural identity is further highlighted by the play’s other characters, including Berniece’s daughter Maretha, who learns to play the piano and develops a deep connection to her family’s history through the music.

Monetary Gain Cultural Preservation
– Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to purchase land and achieve financial stability. – Berniece refuses to sell the piano, valuing it as a symbol of her family’s heritage and cultural identity.
– The piano represents the potential for upward mobility and economic independence. – The piano represents a connection to the past and a way to preserve cultural traditions.
– Boy Willie views monetary gain as a way to break free from the cycle of poverty. – Berniece sees cultural preservation as a means of honoring her family’s history and passing it on to future generations.

In conclusion, the piano in “The Piano Lesson” serves as a complex symbol of the tension between monetary gain and cultural preservation. The conflict between Berniece and Boy Willie represents the larger societal struggle faced by African Americans, as they balance the need for economic stability with the importance of preserving their cultural heritage. Through the piano, August Wilson highlights the power of music to connect individuals to their past and to their cultural tradition. Ultimately, the play underscores the importance of preserving cultural identity in a society that often devalues it.

The Piano as a Source of Empowerment and Agency

Throughout The Piano Lesson, August Wilson uses the piano as a symbol of empowerment and agency. The piano represents both family history and personal identity, and by taking ownership of the piano, the characters in the play are able to assert their agency and control over their own lives.

One of the most powerful examples of this symbolism is in the character of Berniece. For much of the play, Berniece resists selling the piano, seeing it as a symbol of the family’s history and legacy. However, it’s not until she learns to play the piano herself that she is able to fully take ownership of it. By playing the piano, Berniece is able to connect with her family’s history and assert her own identity – both as a woman and as a member of her family.

Here are some additional examples of how the piano symbolizes empowerment and agency in The Piano Lesson:

  • The piano is a way for characters to connect with their ancestors and their family history.
  • Playing the piano allows characters to express themselves and assert their individuality.
  • By taking ownership of the piano, characters are able to assert their agency and control over their own lives.

Ultimately, the piano in The Piano Lesson serves as a powerful symbol of both personal and cultural identity. By taking ownership of the piano, the characters in the play are able to assert their agency, connect with their families and ancestors, and express themselves in a way that empowers them.

The Contrast Between Old and New Modes of Artistic Expression

In the play “The Piano Lesson,” the piano serves as a powerful symbol for the contrast between old and new modes of artistic expression. The piano, representing the old mode of expression, embodies the artistic heritage and cultural richness that is valuable to preserve and celebrate. On the other hand, the new mode of expression, represented by the Charles family’s desire to sell the piano for financial gain, emphasizes the practical and materialistic aspects of modern society.

  • The Piano as a Cultural Relic
  • For Berniece, the piano is not just an antique musical instrument, but a family heirloom that has a significant emotional and cultural value. As a relic of their family’s history, the piano is a tangible reminder of their ancestors’ struggles and achievements. Preserving the piano is a way for Berniece to respect and honor her family’s heritage and to pass it on to future generations.

  • The Piano as a Burden
  • For Boy Willie, the piano is nothing but an obstacle that prevents him from achieving his dream of owning his own land. He sees the piano as a burden that ties him to the past, and as a means to obtain the money he needs to fulfill his ambitions in the present. Boy Willie represents the new generation of African Americans who strive for economic success and material possessions, and are willing to abandon their cultural roots and traditions in the process.

  • The Piano as a Metaphor for the Struggle between the Past and the Present
  • The conflict over the piano in “The Piano Lesson” reflects the tension between the past and the present that characterizes the African American experience. The piano serves as a metaphor for the struggle between the desire to preserve one’s cultural heritage and the need to adapt to changing circumstances and to strive for a better future. Ultimately, the resolution of the conflict over the piano represents a compromise between the opposing values of tradition and progress.

The Symbolism of the Number 6

Another significant symbol in “The Piano Lesson” is the number 6. The motif of the number 6 appears throughout the play, and carries both positive and negative connotations.

On the one hand, the number 6 is associated with the six generations of the Charles family who have lived in the United States since slavery. The family’s history is traced through the patterns carved into the piano by their enslaved ancestors, marking the passage of time and the struggles they faced. The number 6 also represents the harmony and balance that can be achieved when different voices and perspectives are heard and honored.

On the other hand, the number 6 is also linked to tragedy and loss. The sixth generation, represented by Boy Willie and Berniece, has been marked by a legacy of slavery and discrimination that has left them with deep wounds and unresolved traumas. The number 6 is a reminder of the pain and suffering that African Americans have experienced throughout history, and of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

Positive Connotations of the Number 6 Negative Connotations of the Number 6
Represents the six generations of the Charles family Linked to the legacy of slavery and discrimination
Symbolizes harmony and balance Reminds of the pain and suffering of African Americans

The significance of the number 6 in “The Piano Lesson” highlights the complex and multifaceted nature of the African American experience, and emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and honoring the past while striving for a better future.

The Piano as a Tool for Communication Across Cultural Boundaries

The piano is an instrument that knows no cultural boundaries. It is a universal language that can be understood by all, regardless of where they come from or what language they speak.

  • One of the unique things about the piano is its ability to convey emotions without the use of words. The instrument’s sound is so expressive that it can evoke feelings of joy, sadness, and everything in between.
  • Furthermore, music is known to be a language that has the power to unite people from all over the world. With the piano, communication can happen on a different level, transcending language barriers and bringing people together in a way that few other things can.
  • The piano has been used as a tool for diplomacy in many countries. It has been played at diplomatic events, such as state dinners and official receptions, where cultural differences can be put aside in favor of the universal language of music.

Below is a table that showcases some of the ways in which the piano has been used to communicate across cultural boundaries:

Country Event Piano Player
United States State Dinner Lang Lang
China Official Reception Van Cliburn
Japan Cultural Festival Martha Argerich

As we can see, the piano has played an important role in diplomacy, culture, and communication across borders. Its ability to convey emotions and connect people has made it an indispensable tool for bringing different cultures and communities together.

The symbolic importance of the piano in the struggle for civil rights

In the August Wilson play, The Piano Lesson, the piano serves as the centerpiece of the story and symbolizes different things for the various actors. The essential conflict in the story is between siblings Berniece and Boy Willie over what to do with the piano, which represents their family’s legacy. At the core of the utilization of the piano as a symbol in the story is the struggle for civil rights and the history of African-Americans in the United States.

  • The piano is a physical manifestation of the family’s history. When their ancestors were brought over as slaves, they could not bring anything with them, and any part of their past had been forcefully stripped away. To reclaim what they had lost, they turned to music, creating a new form of it that led to spirituals, gospel, jazz, and blues. The piano on which this music was played carried the story of their people, and its existence ensured that their legacy would be passed down to future generations.
  • The piano played a pivotal role in the struggle for civil rights. During the Jim Crow era, black pianists played a critical role in the fight against segregation. Pianos were banned in many public places, and pianists were not permitted to perform, particularly if they were African-American. However, many artists still played in illegal clubs, using their music as a method of resistance and defiance.
  • The piano is a representation of how African-Americans have survived and continued to create despite oppression. Boy Willie highlights how the piano was made out of the blood, sweat, and tears of their ancestors, and shows how the family should be proud of its legacy. Berniece, on the other hand, represents the importance of preserving tradition by refusing to give up the piano, even when she is being threatened. By not selling the piano, she maintains the family’s history, as well as a piece of their identity that would have otherwise been lost.

In summary, the piano in The Piano Lesson serves as a powerful symbol representing the history, resistance, and fortitude of African-Americans. It is a reminder that despite adversity, people can create something beautiful. The play reminds us that art is essential, not only for the individual, but for developing a sense of collective memory as well.

Overall, the significance of the piano is that it demonstrated that although slaves and their descendants may have been forced to abandon their past and face tremendous oppression and cruelty, they were persistent in their music and culture. By continuing to play and create, African-Americans kept their heritage alive and proved their resilience.

Piano Symbolism Civil Rights Significance
The piano represents traditions and history. Music helped stave off the fear and danger posed by slavery and segregation. Black pianists played an essential role in the fight for civil rights.
The piano is a reflection of the family legacy. Black pianists, musicians, and singers used their talent to promote unity and express their natural rights. Many played in illegal clubs, using their music as a form of resistance.
The piano stands for perseverance and strength. The piano represents their struggle and the trials they faced, but it also symbolizes the beauty they created despite those circumstances.

The piano is an iconic instrument that represents both innovation and endurance. It signifies how African-Americans have endured and survived some of the most challenging epochs. And though they still commemorate their history and traditions, they never give in to oppression.

The Spiritual Significance of the Piano in African American Religious Traditions

The piano is a fundamental component of African American gospel music and holds a spiritual significance in religious traditions. The instrument represents a conduit for connecting with a higher power and expressing oneself through music.

  • One of the most notable aspects of the piano’s role in African American religious traditions is its association with the number 9. The number signifies completeness and symbolizes the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
  • The piano’s 88 keys, which are divisible by 9 when added together (8+8=16, 1+6=7, 9+7=16), further reinforce its connection to the spiritual significance of the number.
  • During worship services, the piano is typically used to accompany hymns and lead the congregation in singing. The player’s ability to use the instrument to create worshipful music is seen as a gift from God and is highly respected within the community.

Beyond its musical capabilities, the piano holds significant emotional value as well. Many African Americans who were born into slavery were not allowed to have possessions of their own, making owning a piano a symbol of freedom and empowerment. It represents an opportunity to bring beauty and joy into their lives despite their past struggles.

In conclusion, the use of the piano in African American religious traditions goes far beyond its musical capabilities. It carries with it a deep spiritual significance and acts as a symbol of hope, freedom, and empowerment.

Number 9 Significance Piano Symbolism
Represents fulfillment and completeness Often accompanies hymns during worship services
Symbolizes the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit 88 keys correspond to the spiritual significance of the number 9
Considered a highly respected gift from God Represents freedom and empowerment for African Americans

The Piano as a Means of Coping with Trauma and Adversity

The piano plays a significant role in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” symbolizing the characters’ struggles to cope with trauma and adversity. Through the piano, Wilson explores the themes of family heritage, cultural identity, and generational trauma.

  • Berniece’s Painful Past: Berniece, the protagonist of the story, is haunted by the traumatic history of her ancestors, who were enslaved and forced to play the piano for their masters. The piano reminds her of this traumatic past and the pain and suffering her family endured.
  • Boy Willie’s Search for Freedom: Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother, sees the piano as a way to achieve his dreams of owning land and achieving financial independence. He believes that selling the piano will provide him with the capital he needs to buy the land he desires, which represents his route to personal freedom.
  • Cultural Identity: The piano is also a symbol of cultural identity for Berniece. She values the piano’s historical significance and sees it as an important family heirloom that symbolizes their cultural heritage.

Furthermore, the piano helps Berniece and Boy Willie cope with their trauma and adversity by providing them with a creative outlet and a means of expression. Berniece plays the piano to channel her emotions and connect with her ancestors, while Boy Willie uses it to connect with his family’s history and to express his aspirations and frustrations.

The piano is a reminder of the past, representing both the pain and the potential for growth and transformation. Through their interactions with the piano, Berniece and Boy Willie confront their trauma and develop a deeper understanding of their family’s history and cultural identity.

What Does the Piano Symbolize in The Piano Lesson?

Q: What is the main symbol of the play, The Piano Lesson?

A: The main symbol of the play is the piano, which is passed down through generations of the Charles family.

Q: What does the piano represent in the play?

A: The piano represents the family’s history and legacy, as well as the struggle of African-Americans to reclaim their cultural heritage during the time of slavery and oppression.

Q: What message does the piano symbolize in the play The Piano Lesson?

A: The piano symbolizes the importance of embracing and preserving cultural heritage, as well as the need for personal growth and forgiveness.

Q: What is the story behind the piano in The Piano Lesson?

A: The piano was originally carved by the family’s enslaved ancestors, who were forced to give up their own musical traditions and create instruments for their oppressors.

Q: How does the piano symbolize the identity of the Charles family?

A: The piano represents the family’s past and their struggle to maintain their cultural identity, as well as their journey towards healing and reconciliation.

Q: What is the significance of the piano carving in The Piano Lesson?

A: The piano carving represents the legacy of the Charles family and their ancestors, serving as a powerful reminder of their history and cultural identity.

Q: What is the lesson behind the piano in The Piano Lesson?

A: The Piano Lesson teaches us the importance of family, heritage, and forgiveness, and reminds us that our past can never truly be left behind.

Closing Paragraph

And, that’s all about what the piano symbolizes in The Piano Lesson. The piano is a powerful symbol that tells the story of the Charles family’s heritage, struggle and growth throughout the play. We hope this article has given you a better understanding of the significance of the piano in this play. Thank you for spending your time reading this article. We invite you to come back soon for more articles like this.