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What is a Player Piano?

A player piano, sometimes called a pianola, is a piano that plays itself. The player mechanism inside is operated by air or by electricity. It plays pre-programmed music that is encoded into paper or metal rolls. In fact, if you look around in antique stores or flea markets, you might see long, slim boxes containing scrolls of paper with funny little holes punched into them. Those are piano rolls.

We are used to recorded piano music, but a player piano is different. The roll actually causes the piano keys to move up and down, physically playing the piano like you and I would!

Some piano rolls simply play notes, and sound something like a music box played with piano keys.  Others were recorded by “reproducing pianos,” and play with the dynamics, tempos and phrasing of the human player who originally played the piece of music into the piano! There are even some piano rolls made by classical composers of their own music. That means that we can hear what the piece of music sounded like when it was first written. Cool, huh?

Player pianos were very popular in the early 1900’s, but became too expensive for most families and businesses after the stock market crash of 1929. Some player pianos are still in existence, though, and many of those have been lovingly restored.

There are modern player pianos, too. These use a computer to record the playing of piano music and encode it on CDs. Like the old player pianos, they record not just the sound, but the actual playing of the music. When you pop the CD into the little box attached under the keyboard, the music plays. It looks like an invisible musician is playing just for you!

To learn more about player pianos and hear their music, go to...

“Player Piano Rolls: Listening to History” by Devanney Haruta… a great article and lots of links to composers playing through piano rolls (including George Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue... WOW!)

How a player piano works…

A segment from the tv show How It's Made on piano rolls...

More about how player pianos work, plus their history, from The Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association…