Watch: Why does the military burn pianos?

It's a Royal Air Force tradition that dates back decades and a ceremonial occasion that's a little more on the unusual side.

Piano burning – the act of setting light to a piano, usually an upright – was reportedly started during the Second World War, or in the years leading up to the conflict, to honour fallen RAF pilots.

Other reports, however, say the origins of piano burning relate to pilots being forced to take piano lessons to improve their dexterity and level of culture – and setting fire to an instrument meant the lessons were avoided.

Flight Lt. Leigh Johnson, RAF exchange officer, plays bagpipes during a piano burning at Robins Air Force Base 06042018 Credit US Dept of Defense.jpg
RAF exchange officer Flight Lieutenant Leigh Johnson plays bagpipes during a piano burning at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia (Picture: US Dept of Defense)

Whatever the origins, it's a tradition shared by the Royal Air Force and, across the pond, the US Air Force too.

The Story Behind The Tradition

The long-standing custom of piano burning is surrounded by myth and story-telling but traces its roots to the period between the First and Second World Wars.

Originally, pianos were supposedly set alight by pilots who wanted to avoid taking lessons aimed at improving "finesse and civility". 

The RAF believed that piano lessons for pilots would not only increase their level of culture but also improve their dexterity.

Some have noted that tradition is to have originated at RAF Leuchars, where the only piano at the base burned down in a terrible accident.

With the RAF unable to afford a replacement piano, lessons were ultimately cancelled.

Local pilots, inspired by their animosity towards piano lessons and keen to avoid any more, spread the word like wildfire, and soon the tradition caught on and more RAF bases began burning pianos to avoid lessons.

Even after the lessons ceased, the tradition remained. 

Pianos burn to honour lives lost during Battle of Britain World War II at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina. 15092017 Credit US Dept of Defense.jpg
A piano is set on fire to honour the lives lost during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina (Picture: US Dept of Defense).

Another story suggests that a young pilot who was known as his squadron's piano player was killed while flying in an air raid and in honour of his memory, his squadron burned his piano.

During a burning ceremony in 2015, RAF officer James Radley, who much preferred the second origin story, said: "It's that recognition of importance, that recognition by the squadron that something or someone made such a difference to them that it made a tradition.

"And, I think this is a fantastic way to create a common bond of tradition between the Royal Air Force and the US Air Force."

Watch: RAF officer James Radley during Maxwell Air Force Club's ceremony on 11 September 2015, shares stories relating to the tradition's beginnings (Credit: MaxwellGunterAFB/Senior Airman Jessica Thomas, US Air Force). 

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