Player Piano

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Pianistas, Pianolas, Piano Players– Oh My!

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According to Player Piano Treasury by Harvey Roehl, the first man to construct a piano to play itself through mechanical means was, Fourneaux, a Frenchman who patented the player in 1863. The first player was constructed on pneumatic principles by pumping a hand crank in which a vacuum powered a set of metal fingers to play the keyboard of an ordinary piano. This device was called the Pianista and was literally a piano playing another piano (Roehl 2).

In 1897 a man named Edwin Votey perfected the Pianola piano-player, which like the Pianista was a separate player that could "make any piano into an automatically-played instrument." (Ord-Hume 33). It was known as a cabinet-style player and consisted of pedals or "exhausters" in which the performer would work with their feet, "a paper-roll transporting device which fed the perforated music over a tracker board containing small wind ways leading to a set of pneumatic valves, and a row of small fingers at the back of the player which rested on the piano keyboard" (Ord-Hume 33). The Pianola was fiercely marketed by the Aeolian Company and it was because of this aggressive campaign that the Pianola had a short lived but large popularity. The machines, however, were large and clumsy and one would have to be careful the metal fingers didn't damage the piano keys, which were always at risk (Ord-Hume 33). The Pianola also only played 65 notes of the 88 note piano scale so original compositions had to be rearranged, "in many cases mutilated" to fit the range(Roehl 8). And although the Pianola was a piano player, an actual player was still necessary and had to learn how to use the instrument properly by feeding the music into the machine and pumping the pedals at the right tempo. But by 1908 the Pianola profits completely halted and the popularity for automated musical instrument gave way to the 'inner piano.'

By 1901, Melville Clark invented the first player piano in which the piano and the player were a complete unit. His piano could also play all 88 notes of the piano, however the popularity didn't catch on until 1908 due to the different sizes of music rolls and the different scales. At a convention in Buffalo, New York, a standardization of sizes and the ability to use music rolls between different pianos was set and agreed upon. The Aeolian Company marketed the 'Pianola Piano' and two and half million player pianos were sold between 1900 and 1930 (Ord-Hume 34).

The Ad of Liszt and the Gypsies

"The poor tinsel, the gaudy clothes, the dark passionate faces seemed to rise again from the keys. Mystery, lament, glad, mad, gaiety became crystallized in one imperishable beauty of music-in the soul of immemorial gypsies enshrined upon the keys."

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In a document titled, The Spirit of an Age-old Race that Lives in Melody that was featured in McClure's Magazine in 1915, retells a creation story for the second Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, a famous pianist. In beautiful descriptive and romantic language, the story describes how Liszt, after once hearing a Gypsy song, became haunted by the melody and set out to find it again. "Always had it been in his mind, thrilling him with its strange beauty. It had drawn him to that lonely spot…–to learn the magic secrets of their songs." Liszt as a receptive vessel takes the gypsy song back to the city and three years later plays for the first time in front of a "great audience." "That music lived again infinitely beautified– infinitely adorned. All the pathos of that homeless, wandering race leaped like witcheries from beneath his hands." Liszt brought the gypsies back to life upon his piano keys and after the song was finished the audience was in a frenzy bowing to the musical genius and tearing at his handkerchief. And after that first concert the song was a classic favorite, bringing men and women to tears, but the question the article is really asking is can you play this song yourself and more importantly, can you listen to this whenever you like? "If the Piano in your home is the Pianola– the most modern pianoforte– then music is the "available art" to you." This song is too great to live without with its "savage fascination." Just imagine being able to listen to this music everyday or whenever you like, unless you don't have a Pianola. "Can you not realize what you are losing? What you are denying yourself and your family and perhaps your children?" The article concludes the infinitely superior ability of playing a piano two ways instead of one and warns of ghastly imitators. The Pianola is a once in a lifetime instrument bringing the mystery and magic from the Romanian mountains into your home and under your control(McClure).

The Reproducing Piano

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By 1910, the popularity of the player piano had been well established and the technical developments reached a plateau. From here on the player piano received only minor adjustments and refinements. The major difference between player pianos were whether or not an operator was needed. The reproducing piano was developed through several inventors including, the German firm of Welte who named the device– the Keyless Welte in 1904, Hupfeld who created an electrical reproducing piano in 1906, and just before the first World War the Duo-Art reproducing action was perfected in America. The Reproducing Piano worked independently "as the roll of music be provided with some extra perforations to control special action pneumatics directly." The ordinary player piano would only replay the notes in the right order but all freedom and expression of volume, pitch, and tempo was given to the operator. The performer could control these through levers on the piano that controlled pneumatic bellows that affected the actions of the piano. With the Reproducing piano, pianists and artists could construct their reproduced performances, as they liked. "So absolutely perfect were these instruments and the interpretations which they could give, that each roll was specifically recorded by an artist who would add his name to the roll" (Ord-Hume 34). Rather than just a mechanically played piano, the reproducing piano became more of a music player, without any skill or operation, than ever.

The reproducing piano and player pianos were very vulnerable machines and had to be taken very well care off. Player pianos worked by means of a partial vacuum and if air was allowed to enter in places it shouldn't then it would stop working properly. Equalizing air pressure would make the pedals harder to push and would require more foot pedaling for a sound of less quality. "The player-piano has one unfortunate secondary characteristic in that it works in exactly the same way as a vacuum cleaner" (Ord-Hume 175). Dust and dirt are the main enemies to the player-piano which, if sucked in, can wear down the delicate machinery and affects the pianos performance.(Ord-Hume)

Through the Looking Glass

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Raymond Pearl, taking a piece of unornamented music, Ave Maria, for the player piano and feeds it through the player but instead of right side up, turns it upside down in what he entitles, "Looking Glass" music. "The effect produced was so vastly superior to that rather trite and hackneyed melody, as to give great joy to all who heard. This led to further experiments until now a number of rolls in the collection are permanently reversed." The only thing that remains in looking glass music from the original piece is the rhythm. Otherwise scales that go down go up and lighthearted melodies turn twisted and crash down to deep depths of bass. The reversal of player piano music does not create noise or chaos but something coherent just inside out. The perforated sheets of player pianos allowed musicians or just music lovers to see and study music in different visual and physical ways. The Aeolian Company engineered annotated music rolls with, "considerable explanatory text and a wealth of detailed information– including the musical score– was actually printed on the roll to 'educate whilst playing'" (Ord-Hume 40). The perforations were visually stimulating and held a unique aesthetic value. These rolls displayed outwardly the mechanics and complications of music that revealed music to not be just a beautiful art but digital technology as well.

A Note from St. Peter's on Player Pianos

A Note from St. Peter's on Heavenly Music

"'Come right in,' quoth St. Peter to the newly arrived Shade. 'When you have got your wings step right over and receive your player-piano.' The new arrival looked puzzled. 'My player-piano?' he ejaculated incredulously. 'I thought you gave out harps here.' 'We did until recently,' said the kindly Saint. 'But there were so many complaints– new-comers from earth said it would take them so long to learn to play on them– that we decided to give out player-pianos instead.'" ¬–The Heavenly Music from Puck Dec. 31 1913.


The player piano imitated great works of famous pianists but the player piano does just that-it imitates. Although the player piano is a suberb and complicated instrument working by intricate systems of pneumatics, the player piano is not a real player it is only an instrument. "The mechanical piano can never take the place of a living pianist, for however mechanically perfect the piano may be, it does not possess, it only imitates, the human spirit" (Abbott). The player piano is cool but soulless and the "music that came out of the player pianos was just as mechanical as the instruments workings" (Page). The player piano was however, fun, easy to play, and eventually affordable, but it was not replaceable for a human player no matter how many advertisements declared it did, instead it was the precedent for other mechanical players such as the phonograph and the c.d. player to come.


  • Abbott, Lyman. Knoll Papers: What's the Use? Outlook (1893-1924);Feb 18, 1920; APS Pnline pg. 274.
  • Ord-Hume, Arthur W. J. G., Player Piano: The History of The Mechanical Piano and How to Repair it. George Allen & Unwim Ltd, 1970, Great Britain. First American Edition published 1970 A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc. Cranbery, N.J.
  • Page, Tim, Ghostly Grand Piano: Technical Marcel Plays like an Old Pro. The Washington Post (March 10, 2007) Final Edition. Style; C01.
  • Pearl, Raymond (1914, June). LOOKING GLASS MUSIC. The Independent ... Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921), 78(3418), 457. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from APS Online database. (Document ID: 822217382).
  • Roehl, Harvey. Player Piano Treasury, 2nd Edition, The Vestal Press. 1970, U.S.A.
  • The Heavenly Music, Puck (1877-1918); Dec 31, 1913;74, 1922; APS Online. pg.4
  • The Spirit of an Age-old Race that Lives in Melody. McClure's Magazine (1893-1926). New York:Nov 1915. Vol. Volume XLVI, Iss. Number 1, p. 48 (2 pp.)