A player piano (also known as pianola or autopiano) is a self-playing piano, containing a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano action via pre-programmed music on perforated paper or metallic rolls. The rise of the player piano grew with the increase of mass-produced for the home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (“Player Pianos – Sarasota Piano Tuner”) Sales peaked in 1924, as did the improvement in phonograph recordings due to electrical recording methods developed in the mid-1920s. The advent of electrical amplification in home music reproduction via wireless in the same period helped to cause their eventual decline in popularity. (“The Classical Pianola Information Page on Classic Cat”)

The stock market crash of 1929 virtually wiped-out production.

These are automated instruments typically intended for use in a coin-operated setting rather than home use. A multitude of manufacturers made a varied range of instruments featuring different combinations of pianos, organ pipework, percussion, and other fittings. (“ Antique Player Piano types”) They were eventually replaced by the jukebox following the introduction of effective sound amplification.

How Does It Work?

Player Mechanism

The player mechanism is essentially a bank of switches activated by software. The switches are pneumatically operating valves which turn on the motive force used to play the piano action. This force is created by switching suction into a miniature, collapsible pneumatic bellows with one assembly assigned to each individual note. (“Talk: Player piano – Wikipedia”) The valve switching system is triggered by the music roll. As the paper perforations run over the music tracker bar air is then allowed to enter. This causes a pressure differential within the mechanism triggering the switching valves to operate. The note channels can be either on or off; hence the music roll can be regarded as an early form of programmable binary software. (“Talk: Player piano – Wikipedia”)

The apparatus operates from suction generated by two foot-treadled bellows coupled to a pressure equalizing reservoir system to even the air flow. The motive force may be used to power peripheral mechanisms within the piano operating sustained pedal function, music roll centering, and other features, Player pianos are all fitted with hand levers for the performer to vary volume and speed to imitate a live performance. As such; they may be regarded as the first truly interactive acoustic music making machine, something that went without parallel until the past half decade with the modern advances in computing technology and software. (“The Classical Pianola Information Page on Classic Cat”)

Music Rolls

Music rolls for the pneumatic player pianos consist of a continuous sheet of paper rolled onto a spool. The spool fits into the spool box and the free end is hooked onto the take-up spool which will unwind the roll at an even pace across the tracker bar. The music is programmed via perforations on the paper. Different player pianos have different perforation sizes, channel layouts, and spool fittings though the majority conform to one or two dominant formats later adopted by the industry as the standard.

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