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Player piano

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, see Player Piano (novel).
A player piano performing.
A player piano performing.

The player piano is a type of piano that plays music automatically without the need for a human pianist. Instead, the keys are struck by mechanical, pneumatic or electrical means. The player piano was most popular in the first half of the 20th century, roughly at the same time as the acoustic phonograph.

History of the player piano

This musical instrument was not invented by any one person, since its many distinguishing features were developed over a long period of time, principally during the second half of the 19th century. An early example was the Pianista, developed by Henri Fourneaux in 1863, though ultimately the best known was the Pianola, originally created by Edwin Scott Votey in 1895 at his home workshop in Detroit, Michigan. It was Votey's invention that initiated mass production of the instrument, which went finally into production in 1898.[1] John McTammany, an American Civil War veteran, also claimed much credit in the invention and development of the instrument, having patented several devices that were important to the development of the player piano from 1881 onwards.

Types of player pianos

Steinway Welte-Mignon reproducing piano (1919)
Steinway Welte-Mignon reproducing piano (1919)

The most commonly found older player pianos are pneumatic, powered by a vacuum which is created via foot-powered bellows or electric motors. There are two main types: one fully automatic which faithfully reproduces a pianist's interpretation of the music, and one which lacks the nuance of live performance. Nowadays, these are usually known as the reproducing piano and the pianola respectively, though there are also instruments that cross this exact division. Originally, the Pianola (with a capital 'P') was a registered tradename of the Aeolian Company, but became a generic name associated with the player piano. Many companies marketed the player piano with different names, most commonly with the suffix OLA or with the word TONE incorporated into it, but Pianola was the name that stuck.

The most familiar type of pneumatic player piano looks like a normal upright piano, but has a mechanism controlled by a paper music roll contained within the cabinet of the piano itself. However, the original pneumatic players were constructed in a separate cabinet, which was placed in front of the keyboard of an ordinary piano. This unit was positioned in such a way that a series of felt-covered wooden or metal "fingers" were located above each key of the piano and struck the corresponding note as indicated by the perforations in the music roll; most include one or more moving "feet" to control the piano's pedals as well. These early instruments came to be known as cabinet players or vorsetzers. From around 1908, the roll mechanisms were also built into grand pianos.

A restored pneumatic player piano
A restored pneumatic player piano

Ampico (American Piano Company), Welte-Mignon, and Duo-Art (Aeolian Company) are a few of the popular brands of (now antique) reproducing piano mechanisms. Each uses a different encoding method for the paper music roll and different internal systems to control the piano during playback. These mechanisms were retro-fitted into many different piano brands (Steinway, Marshall and Wendall, Kimball, etc.)

Player pianos were sometimes manufactured with additional combinations of organ pipes and percussion instruments built into them. This kind of instrument was called an Orchestrion, built since about 1840. One of the leading companies in this business were the German-American company M. Welte & Sons, the later producers of the Welte-Mignon reproducing pianos, and the Wurlitzer Company, founded by German immigrants from Bavaria. These massive devices were some of the most complicated mechanical musical instruments ever built, with the exception of a few organs.

Nickelodeons are coin-operated player pianos which were normally located in public establishments. Much more elaborate coin-operated versions include additional sound-effects like the Orchestrion. They were eventually replaced by jukeboxes in the early 20th century, though restored or replicated Nickelodeons and Orchestrions are sometimes found today in public establishments as novelty items.

A coin-operated Link Orchestrion player piano.
A coin-operated Link Orchestrion player piano.

Music rolls

Music rolls for pneumatic player pianos, often known as piano rolls, consist of continuous sheets of paper, about 11 1/4 inches wide and generally no more than 100 feet in length, rolled on to a protective spool, rather like a large cotton reel. The paper is perforated with numerous small holes, which control the pattern of the notes to be played as the roll moves across a tracker-bar. On reproducing rolls, additional holes control the volume level, accents, pedals, etc., to faithfully recreate the original performance.

Music rolls were not very popular in Europe, except for some German instruments, and book music was the most commonly used medium for large instruments.

Modern player pianos

Player and control unit of Yamaha Disklavier Mark III
Player and control unit of Yamaha Disklavier Mark III
Synthesizer control unit of Yamaha Disklavier Mark III
Synthesizer control unit of Yamaha Disklavier Mark III

Later developments of the reproducing piano include the use of magnetic tape and floppy disks, rather than piano rolls, to record and play back the music; and, in the case of one instrument made by Bösendorfer, computer assisted playback.

Almost all modern player pianos use MIDI to interface with computer equipment. Most modern player pianos come with an electronic device that can record and playback MIDI files on floppy disks and/or CD-ROMs, and a MIDI interface that enables computers to drive the piano directly for more advanced operations. Live performance or computer generated music can be recorded in MIDI file format for accurate reproduction later on such instruments. MIDI files containing converted antique piano-rolls can be purchased on the Internet.

As of 2006, several player piano conversion kits are available (PianoDisc, Pianomation, etc.), allowing the owners of normal pianos to convert them into computer controlled instruments. The conversion process usually involves cutting open the bottom of the piano to install mechanical parts under the keyboard.

Player pianos versus electric pianos

A player piano is neither an electric piano, electronic piano, nor a digital piano. The distinction between these instruments lies in the way sounds are produced. A player piano is an acoustic piano where the sound is produced mechanically by moving keys which cause hammers to strike the piano strings.


  • Reblitz, Arthur A. Player Piano Servicing and Rebuilding. ISBN 0-911572-40-6 Lanham, Maryland: Vestal Press, 1985.
  • Reblitz, Arthur A. The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. ISBN 0-9705951-0-7 Woodsville, New Hampshire: Mechanical Music Press, 2001.

See also

  • Conlon Nancarrow, composer of dozens of "Studies for Player Piano"
  • Disklavier
  • George Antheil, who famously used 16 sychronized player pianos in his Ballet Mechanique
  • Mechanical organ
  • Punched tape

External links

  • Welte-Mignon, Portal for Reproducing Pianos
  • The Pianola Institute London
  • - Listen to MIDI files created by scanning player piano rolls.
  • Player pianos in a photo archive
  • Archival Preservation of Player Piano Music Rolls - offers many scanned player piano rolls for free download in MIDI format
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