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Player piano

The player piano is a type of piano that plays music without the need for a human pianist to depress the normal keys or pedals. Instead, these are moved by mechanical, pneumatic or electrical means. One cannot say that this musical instrument was 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. The player piano was most popular in the first half of the 20th century, roughly at the same time as the acoustic gramophone.

Table of contents
1 Types of Player Piano
2 Music Rolls
3 Reproducing Pianos
4 Pianolas
5 Modern Player Pianos
6 Player Pianos versus Electronic Pianos

Types of Player Piano

The most commonly found player pianos are pneumatic, powered by suction, and there are two main types: one fully automatic, and one which needs a human being to play it musically. 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.

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, in such a way that a series of felt-covered wooden or metal "fingers" were located above each note of the piano and struck the corresponding key as indicated by the music roll. Not surprisingly, these early instruments came to be known as cabinet players. From around 1908, the roll mechanisms were also built in to grand pianos.

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 small holes according to the pattern of the notes to be played.

Reproducing Pianos

Rolls for the reproducing piano were generally made from the recorded performances of famous musicians. Typically, a pianist would sit at a specially designed recording piano, and the pitch and duration of any notes played would be either marked or perforated on a blank roll, together with the duration of the sustaining and soft pedal. Reproducing pianos can also recreate the dynamics of a pianist's performance by means of specially encoded control perforations placed towards the edges of a music roll, but this coding was never recorded automatically. Different companies had different ways of notating dynamics, some technically advanced (though not necessarily more effective), some secret, and some dependent entirely on a recording producer's handwritten notes, but in all cases these dynamic hieroglyphics had to be skilfully converted into the specialized perforated codes needed by the different types of instrument.

Recorded rolls play at a specific, marked speed, where for example, 70 signifies 7 feet of paper travel in one minute, at the start of the roll. On all pneumatic player pianos, the paper is pulled on to a take-up spool, and as more paper winds on, so the effective diameter of the spool increases, and with it the paper speed. Player piano engineers were well aware of this, as can be seen from many patents of the time, but since reproducing piano recordings were generally made with a similar take-up spool drive, the tempo of the recorded performance is faithfully reproduced, despite the gradually increasing paper speed.

The playing of many pianists and composers is preserved on reproducing piano roll. Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Sergei Rachmaninov and George Gershwin are amongst the composers who have had their performances recorded in this way.


The pianola was originally designed for music rolls that were not recorded at a keyboard. Instead, musical editors drew pencil lines on blank master rolls as an exact transcription of the sheet music, and then other operatives used hammers and punches to create an original roll. When playing the pianola, if the music is not to sound like a mechanical automaton, one must play the instrument musically. Suction is provided by two exhauster pedals, operated by the feet of a pianolist. The force of this suction creates the dynamics of the music, and so accents, crescendos and other effects are obtained by rapid, yet careful use of these pedals. Similarly, because the music rolls are perforated at an inexorably constant tempo, all the tiniest fluctuations of phrasing and rubato must be introduced by means of a tempo lever, usually operated by the right hand. There are often other hand levers for controlling the pedals of the actual piano.

Besides these two clearly differentiated types of music roll, there were others that bridged the gap between the two instruments. Hand-played rolls reproduce the note values of a live pianist, but with no automatic dynamic control, and this allows pianola owners to recreate the performances of experts, rather than having to work too hard themselves.

However, since rolls for the pianola were not generally recorded by hand, there is also the possibility to create music that is impossible for humans to play, or, more correctly, music that was not conceived in terms of performance by hand, whether inhumanly complex or not. Over one hundred composers wrote music specially for the player piano during the course of the 20th century, notably Conlon Nancarrow and Igor Stravinsky.

Modern Player Pianos

Later developments of the reproducing piano include the use of magnetic tape 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. Live performance or computer generated music can be recorded in MIDI file format for accurate reproduction later on such instruments.

At present, in 2003, several player piano conversion kits are available, allowing the owners of normal pianos to convert them into computer controlled instruments. The conversion process usually involve cutting open the bottom of the piano to install mechanical parts under the keyboard. 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.

Yamaha produces the Disklavier, a reproducing piano that is controlled by solenoids and optical sensors for each key. The optical sensors record the notes and key velocity played by the performer, without needing any physical contact with the keys. This contact-less design allows accurate recording without affecting the movement of the keys in any way. The solenoids move the keys in response to the recorded MIDI events during playback. One minor limitation of the Disklavier is that it is restricted to playing sixteen notes at any one time, meaning that for any complex music (such as the piano rolls of George Gershwin's 'An American in Paris',) two synchronized instruments have to be used.

Player Pianos versus Electronic Pianos

The distinction between a player piano and an electronic piano lies in the reproduction of the sound. A player piano is an acoustic piano where the sound is produced by moving the keys, which in turn cause the hammers to strike the piano strings. An electronic piano produces its sound by means of a synthesizer that drives a pair of loudspeakers.

Player Piano is also a novel by Kurt Vonnegut.