Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Strange Custom of Setting Pianos on Fire

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When an old piano is out of tune and completely out of commission, some say there’s only one thing left to do: Burn it. Burning an old piano has become something of a tradition for musicians and Air Force members alike—although no one's exactly sure how it got started.

Most stories attribute the birth of the custom to the British Royal Air Force (RAF), with the ritual eventually spreading to the U.S. Air Force. One popular origin tale goes like this: Some time during World War II, the Royal Air Force decided that their pilots needed to be more civilized and gentlemanly. As part of this etiquette training, pilots were required to take piano lessons. And they all hated it—so no one was surprised when the building the piano was in mysteriously caught fire, reducing the instrument to a pile of ashes, strings, and keys. The act of rebellion quickly became a tradition among pilots.

The other story often cited is a bit more touching. By this account, a fallen RAF fighter pilot was also the resident piano player in his squadron, and after he was killed on a mission, his fellow squadron members burned the piano in his honor—if he couldn’t play it, no one should.

In the video below, RAF Lt. Col. James Radley gives both potential origin stories before a piano burn at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The piano was set alight to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain:

But it’s not just members of the military who tickle the incendiary ivories—playing a piano as it burns has also become a kind of performance art.

Pianist Yosuke Yamashita played his first burning piano in 1973, when a graphic designer asked him to do the honors for a short film. Yamashita happened to view the film again 35 years later and was inspired to do an encore performance. This time, he assembled 500 spectators on a beach in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture to watch the piano turn to embers. It took 10 minutes for the flames to completely silence the instrument, but Yamashita played until he could literally play no more.

"I did not think I was risking my life but I was almost suffocating from the smoke that was continuously getting into my eyes and nose," Yamashita later said.

Of course, others have a little more fun with it, like this pianist who appropriately chose “Great Balls of Fire” to play:


Should you want to attempt the feat yourself, take the advice of Annea Lockwood, a composer who has written unorthodox pieces for decomposing pianos, such as Piano Garden and Drowning Piano. Here are the directions for Piano Burning, written in 1968:

- Set upright piano (not a grand) in an open space with the lid closed.
- Spill a little lighter fluid on a twist of paper and place inside, near the pedals.
- Light it.
- Balloons may be stapled to the piano.
- Play whatever pleases you for as long as you can.

If you do follow her instructions, however, make sure you adhere to Lockwood's number one rule: "All pianos used should already be beyond repair."

Your Library Has a Free Music Service That You Probably Didn't Know About

Did you know that you can download free music from your local library? Music that you can keep. That's right: not borrow, keep.

It's all possible thanks to a service called Freegal (a portmanteau of free and legal), which gives patrons of participating libraries access to 15 million songs from 40,000 labels, notably including the Sony Music Entertainment catalog. All you need is a library card.

Here's how it works: You can download a few songs a week, and, in many areas, enjoy several hours of streaming, too (the precise number of songs and hours of streaming varies by library). Once you download MP3 files, they're yours. You're free to put them on iTunes, your iPhone, your tablet, and more. You don't have to return them and they don't expire. The counter resets on Mondays at 12:01 a.m. Central Time, so if you hit your limit, you won't have long to wait before you get more downloads. And Freegal has some great stuff: A quick scan of the front page reveals music from Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Cardi B, Simon & Garfunkel, Childish Gambino, The Avett Brothers, Lykke Li, and Sara Bareilles.

Freegal has been around since 2010 and is offered at libraries worldwide. In the U.S., that includes the New York Public Library, Queens Library, Los Angeles Public Library, West Chicago Public Library, Houston Public Library, and more. In the past few years, libraries have debuted some other amazing free digital services, from classic films streaming on Kanopy to audiobooks and e-books available to borrow on SimplyE and OverDrive. But the thing that's so exciting about Freegal is that you can keep the MP3 files, unlike services that limit you to borrowing.

Freegal's site is easy to navigate: You can browse playlists and make your own, check out the most popular tunes, and save songs to your wishlist for when you get more credits. In the old days, music fans would check out CDs from the library and upload them onto their computers before returning them. But Freegal eliminates the need to go to your local branch, check out an album, and bring it back when you're done.

Freegal app

To find out if your local library has Freegal, go to and click login, then search for your area. It's important to note: Your library's contract might not have both streaming and downloading privileges. You can use Freegal on the web or as an app available on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. Of course, the service doesn't have everything. And sometimes, when it does have an artist, it will only have a few of their most popular albums. But if you frequently buy music on iTunes or elsewhere, checking Freegal first may save you a bit of money.

If you don't yet have a library card, Freegal is just one more reason why you should get one ASAP.

Rick Diamond, Getty Images
An Anthology Series Based on Dolly Parton's Songs Is Coming to Netflix
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Though she may be best known for her music career, Dolly Parton is a Hollywood powerhouse. In addition to starring in more than a few contemporary classics, from 9 to 5 to Steel Magnolias, she's also been partly responsible for some of your favorite TV series. As part owner of Sandollar Entertainment, a film and television production company, she's been a silent figure behind shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, the queen of country music is preparing to return to the small screen once again—this time on Netflix.

The beloved singer is partnering with Warner Bros. Television to produce an anthology series for Netflix, Engadget reports. Set to debut in 2019, each of the eight episodes will have a theme based on a song by Parton, who will serve as executive producer and singer-songwriter in addition to appearing in the series.

"As a songwriter, I have always enjoyed telling stories through my music," Parton said in a statement. "I am thrilled to be bringing some of my favorite songs to life with Netflix. We hope our show will inspire and entertain families and folks of all generations, and I want to thank the good folks at Netflix and Warner Bros. TV for their incredible support."

The list of songs hasn’t yet been released, but I Will Always Love You, Jolene, and The Bargain Store are among Parton’s greatest hits.

Parton previously worked with Warner Bros. to produce the made-for-television movies Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (2015) and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (2016). She has also nearly finished the music for the upcoming film Dumplin'—based on a novel by Julie Murphy and starring Jennifer Aniston—and the soundtrack will be released via Dolly Records and Sony Music Nashville, according to Parton’s website.

[h/t Engadget]


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