Player Piano Player

The piano was a revolutionary piece of music technology in its time, and still holds pride of place in the modern music landscape. Although nowadays computers can reproduce and create music (including the sounds of a piano) in remarkable ways, the quest to automate the piano far predates the advent of electronic computing…

One Step At A Time

The piano itself was invented around the year 1700, which created a step-change in keyboard performance by allowing the player to express music dynamics (playing soft and loud, piano/forte). However, not everyone could actually play to a professional level, so experiencing high-quality music in the home was something of a rarity.

By the late 19th century, a number of people were trying to develop some form of automation system for the piano, which would eventually become known as the player piano. The basic system was similar to early computers, where a roll of paper/cardboard with carefully placed perforations indicated which notes were to be played. As the roll rotated around, a pneumatic system caused the appropriate piano keys to be triggered in response to the perforations, creating the illusion of a self-playing piano.

Format Wars

Player pianos began to flourish around the end of the 19th century, and became very popular through the start of the 20th century, reaching peak production around 1924. At this point, the development of radio technology (combined with the great stock market crash of 1929) led to the rapid demise of the industry.

During the player piano peak, there was of course a brisk trade in the pianos themselves, but also a burgeoning piano roll industry – individual songs and instrumental tracks could be bought at music stores, and this became a booming marketplace in itself. As is a familiar experience in the electronic age, new technologies often appear with a number of competing formats before consolidation occurs (Betamax v VHS, Blu-Ray v HD-DVD), and indeed we saw the same principles at play here.

Initially, many rolls were 11.25 inches wide with 6 holes per inch, allowing a 65 note range (and the rolls for different piano manufacturers were not interchangeable). However, at the Buffalo Convention in 1908, a new 88 note format was agreed (same roll size, but with 9 holes per inch) so that all rolls could then be played on any piano. While great for the consumers, many smaller companies who built for the 65 note format were unable to adjust and went out of business.

A Modern Take

Dan Tepfer is a pianist, composer and programmer who is revisiting some of the player piano concepts under very modern auspices. Using a laptop and a Yamaha Disklavier, he has created a unique physical/electronic human/machine music interface that isn’t just reproducing sounds, but actually interacting with the performer and acting as an integral part of the composition/improvisational process:

You can read a bit more about Tepfer here


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