Instruments | Player Piano | Keyboards

The name ‘player piano’ is a misnomer, indeed the precise opposite of the truth. In fact, this is a playerless piano – a piano that plays itself.

Origins of the Player Piano

Though almost exclusively associated with the early-twentieth century, the idea of a self-playing piano had been around for centuries. Henry VIII’s self-playing virginals and Clementi’s studded-cylinder piano of 1825 were part of the same dream. The key to its fulfilment was forged with the invention of the automatic loom in 1804. In this device, a perforated card on a cylinder allowed certain needles to pass through it while rejecting others. The same principle could be applied to ‘needles’ of air, pumped by a bellows. In the case of the piano or the organ, this would determine the movement of the keys.

The first complete pneumatic piano-player was patented in 1863, but made no headway. By the turn of the century, though, the machinery had advanced to the stage where the left foot pedalled the bellows, leaving the right to manage the sustaining pedal while the hands manipulated the speed and volume controls as the ‘player’ saw fit.


Two significantly different types of player piano emerged. One, popularly known as the Pianola, furnished a roll containing nothing more than the bare notes (or perforated equivalents) of whatever the piece happened to be, leaving the ‘interpretation’ entirely in the hands of the operator. Rolls soon appeared, however, with specific, anonymous guidelines as to how the tempo and rhythm of any given piece should be controlled. By 1905, such instructions were increasingly replaced by authorized interpretations of various world-famous pianists.


In 1904, in Freiburg, Germany, Edwin Welte invented a device by means of which a piano roll, properly perforated, could record with a then-unprecedented degree of fidelity performances given by living pianists. He called it Mignon and soon persuaded many of the greatest pianists and composers of the day to record on it. It could be fitted to any piano, and was frequently added to otherwise conventional instruments by such makers as Steinway, Chickering, Broadwood, Knabe, Weber and Steck. The Welte-Mignon mechanism alone was available at one time in 115 different makes of piano. The extent of its fidelity remains hotly debated, and in any case, the invention of electrical recording in 1926 inevitably put an end to the careers of all such systems.

While it was some decades before the gramophone could rival the actual sonority of the instrument, it could catch details and subtleties of nuance more convincingly than even the best piano rolls. An unexpected bonus of the reproducing piano, however, was its liberation of composers from the hitherto-insuperable limitations of a pianist’s 10 fingers. Among noted figures who took advantage of this to write directly for the new instrument were Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973), Herbert Howells (1892–1983), and the American Conlon Nancarrow (1912–97), who decided to devote his entire output to...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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