This is the way the music ends.

An unwanted piano sits in the driveway of Nate Otto's Anoka home, awaiting its fate. It was headed to the landfill, but ended up with Otto, a player piano restorer, instead.

If this were a Pixar movie, we'd see a bittersweet flashback of the 100-year-old piano patiently enduring the mistakes of generations of kids learning to play, when it was the well-loved center of Christmas carol singalongs, when it was a symbol of status and refinement for a middle-class family.

But this story doesn't have a happy ending.

No one was willing to pay to have it restored, so Otto methodically dismantled the 800-pound instrument, saving a handful of vintage screws, wooden knobs and metal staples. The bulk of the metal will be recycled. The wood will become firewood. And the last song this piano played was a discordant "bong!" as Otto hammered it to pieces with a mallet.

Every year in Minnesota, hundreds of unwanted pianos face a similar fate.

On Facebook Marketplace, you can find dozens of free pianos on offer around the state: Kimballs, Wurlitzers and Chickerings, spinets, uprights and even grands. Sellers on the site may want money for electronic keyboards or a kid's toy piano. But a full-sized acoustic? You can have that for nothing — as long as you take it away.

Many of these pianos won't find takers. In fact, their current owners, who might have paid thousands of dollars for them a few decades ago, may have to pay a few hundred more to have them hauled away and, most likely, thrown out.

"We pick up and dump a lot of them, quite a lot of them," said Rolanda Burkhalter, office administrator at Manny's Piano Moving, a Twin Cities company. "Some of them are quite nice."

Last summer was particularly busy for piano disposal at Piano Movers Extraordinaire. The Braham, Minn.-based company disposed of 276 pianos, according to owner Melissa Aszmann. During the pandemic, people wanted pianos to give their kids something to do at home, Aszmann said. "Post-COVID, they're getting rid of the old ones," she said. "I probably get these phone calls six times a week."

Otto has bashed and burned more than 50 discarded pianos in the five years his Rum River Restoration has been in business. "There are more pianos than people who want pianos," he said.

Years in the unmaking

The popularity of the piano has been declining for decades.

In 1923, three years after Irving Berlin wrote the popular Broadway song, "I Love A Piano," nearly 350,000 pianos were sold in the United States. In 2022, with a population three times that of 1923, Americans bought only 34,000 acoustic pianos.

"It's a niche product now," said Brian Majeski, owner of Music Trades, a music industry magazine and market research company.

The rise of other entertainment options during the 20th century — the radio, the phonograph, movies, TV — ate into the piano's popularity, as did the availability of personal computers and video games. Digital pianos (203,000 sold in the U.S. in 2022) also eroded the demand for acoustic pianos. So did changing musical tastes with the postwar rise of rock and folk music. Elvis and Bob Dylan played the guitar. (In 2022, 2.7 million acoustic and electric guitars were sold in the U.S.)

"From a musical instrument standpoint, it's a fret-centric world," said Majeski.

There's another problem for the piano: A well-cared-for, good-quality guitar can last for a century. Pianos wear out. "Even if you haven't played it, it just ages," said Michael Moeller, owner of Laursen Piano Service, a Twin Cities piano tuning and moving company.

But it can be emotionally as well as physically hard to part with what was once the pride and joy of a household, especially if it's headed to a landfill.

"Grandma's fingers were on those keys," Aszmann said.

Piano movers said they often will be summoned to a house recently sold by the downsizing owners and the only thing left in the home is a stubbornly immobile half-ton piano.

"It's traumatic for people," said John Levasseur, lead mover at Laursen Piano Service. "Sometimes it feels like you're putting a pet down."

The key of hope

But not all old pianos end up in the dump.

Keys 4/4 Kids, a Twin Cities nonprofit, accepts donated pianos with a pickup fee of around $280, according to Grant Dawson, executive director. He estimates the organization takes about 1,000 pianos a year. "There's just a tremendous surplus of these old instruments," he said. "The tap doesn't turn off."

Keys 4/4 Kids resells the better ones and gives some to families, schools, community centers and arts organizations. Others are used in the downtown Minneapolis Pianos on Parade program. Even so, Dawson said about 70% of the donated pianos have to be recycled or landfilled.

At Pianocycle, another piano recycling company, founder Zero One and his employee, Drew Stamps, dismantle pianos with a sledgehammer. In about 15 minutes, an instrument with more than 10,000 individual parts and that took hundreds of man-hours to craft is in pieces.

Much of the wood gets "upcycled." Woodworkers, furniture restorers and artists show up at the company's headquarters (a residential garage in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Prospect Park) to get assorted piano lids, knee panels and fall boards, which they repurpose to make electric guitar bodies, shelves, game boards or art pieces. John Howard drove from Duluth to get of hundreds of piano keys for his wife, Kimberley Howard, who uses them in sculptures.

A lucky few pianos have a better outcome. Pianocycle tries to find new homes for the best pianos it receives.

That's what Teresa Dyar was hoping for when she paid Pianocycle $349 to take away her Kawai console piano. It had been the centerpiece in her Minneapolis living room since the family bought it for about $6,000 about 25 years ago.

One can't guarantee what will happen to any piano he picks up. In the past six years, Pianocycle took apart more than 1,000 unwanted pianos. The company found new homes for just over 100 old pianos, including a Steinway grand that is now being played nearly every day by 13-year-old Alan Moore of Bloomington.

The fee for people who want to adopt a Pianocycle piano is only $88. One was hopeful that the Dyar piano would be played again.

"We didn't want it to go to the dump," Dyar said. "It would've broken all of our hearts."