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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Player Piano

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Player Piano

Self-playing pianos may have been big in the 19th and 20th century, but with a recent MI market report suggesting the instrument will “threaten traditional piano sales over the next 10 years” it seems the Player Piano is set for a comeback.

While it’s no doubt that the recent resurgence in fondness for the instrument has been helped by its prominent feature in hit HBO show Westworld, advancements in technology means today's pianos can be packed with features that will blow what we think of as old time self-playing pianos out of the water.

For example the Yamaha ENSPIRE features an extensive Pianosoft software library, which enables users to download music so the instrument can instantly replay full orchestral – and vocal – arrangements, with the piano keys and pedals able to exactly replicate the physical actions of the pianist at the time of the original recording.

While this technology is no doubt impressive, for this instalment of ‘Anatomy of an Instrument’ we will look at the origins, manufacturers and specs of the original player pianos that sat in the homes of many families around the world during the 1900s.

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What is a player piano?

A player piano, self-playing piano or pianola contains a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano via pre-programmed music marked out on perforated paper.

The idea behind an automatic musical instrument can be traced back many centuries, where pinned barrels were used to strike bells in a clock, and later extended to operate musical boxes.

In the early 1900s a standard 65-note format evolved in the form of the pianol, which had 11 1⁄4-inch-wide (290 mm) rolls and holes spaced 6 to the inch. Several player manufacturers used their own form of roll incompatible with other makes.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

Traditionally, this particular instrument is no really one that a musician plays, but rather one that anyone can set to play their chosen pieces of music. The operator manually manipulates the control levers in order to produce a musical performance. In some ways, the device was a gramophone for those wishing to just hear piano tunes.

Here are some traditional player pianos in action:

Should I stock them?

At the end of 2016, we reported on new research from Future Market Insights that suggested traditional pianos are expected to face strong competition by self-playing pianos over the next ten years. So, if you’re stocking pianos and don’t currently offer player pianos, now might be the time to consider it.

Who makes/made them?

Here’s a list of manufacturers of the traditional player pianos from the 19th and 20th century:

The Aeolian Company
Chase & Baker
Wilcox and White

Tags: pianos , Anatomy of an Instrument , self-playing pianos , player pianos

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