Updated: Oct 5
Early player pianos
“Sit here–at the Pianola Piano and play the world’s best music. No need to bother with scales and exercises or long hours of practice. The gift of music can be yours at once. Not only can you play anything you wish, but you can find full and adequate expression for the love of music that is within you. You can play your favorite melodies just as you believe they should be played. The Pianola Piano is waiting to make you a musician. Only the Pianola Piano can give you these powers…” (The Aeolian Company advertisement).
Advertisements like this one found a welcome audience of consumers in the early 20th century. The early player pianos offered popular commercial establishments and families at home the “gift of music” as a live production without the hassle or expense of hiring a pianist or the time, investment, and effort required to master the instrument themselves. Player pianos have come a long way since their inception, and though there are still quite a few of the older ones kicking around, the features and abilities of the modern systems are very impressive and open up a new world for music appreciators.
A brief history
The first system created to play a piano through mechanical instead of human means was the Pianola, patented by E.S. Votey in 1897. This first version was enclosed in a cabinet that was placed in front of a piano keyboard. Wooden “fingers” extended from the cabinet over the piano keys and struck the keys to play the notes.
Eventually, this system was built into the body of a piano, creating the first “player piano” (a player piano is a piano with a player system in it). The appeal of these pianos, as implied by the ad at the beginning of this post, was that they allowed someone unskilled at piano to produce enjoyable music. Of course, there was still a certain level of energy and skill required to “play” a player piano, and even entire books like The Art of the Player-Piano by Syndney Grew, published 1922, were written to impart this knowledge.
How did they work?
The music came on rolls (like those created by QRS Music Technologies), with a paper scroll wrapped around a cylinder with holes in the paper to correspond with the notes in a musical composition. The roll paper would pass over the tracker bar, which consisted of tiny evenly space holes that were each connected to a valve system corresponding to the key. When the hole on the page lined up with a hole in the tracking bar, it allowed air to pass through into the channel and through a system of bellows, pneumatics, and valves, the system would bypass the key and initiate the wippen connected to the hammer for that specific note.
Player systems operated under vacuum suction (provided by pumping exhauster bellows), so air coming into the system engaged and moved parts to play the notes. Eventually, the pumper no longer had to be involved at all, as vacuum motors replaced the foot pumps and were plugged into the wall and ran off of electricity instead of pumping.
The technology advanced even further when player pianos were developed into “reproducing pianos” and could reproduce tempo and dynamic changes in the performance capabilities using switches. With these improvements, reproducing pianos became more popular in professional contexts for purposes like making phonograph recordings or composing music.
1930s-1990s (The Dark Ages)
In the 1930s, radios and phonographs became more popular, and the player piano fell out of fashion. There were still some loyal users but interest and production was stagnant for the next 50+ years until Yamaha came out with the Disklavier in the 1990s.
PianoDisc, QRS, & Spirio
Soon after, PianoDisc came out with their own version, which could be retrofitted to any piano by a skilled and knowledgeable technician. Then QRS got in on the action, as well, and pivoted their company from supporting the old technology to the new. Early digital systems ran off of floppy disks, then to CDs, and now music libraries are stored in the cloud and can be controlled by phone or tablet. The newest player piano on the market is the factory installed Spirio system from Steinway.
Modern Player Systems
Modern digital player systems have extensive libraries. The updated models can connect to wifi. The piano has the ability to be muted and turned into a midi-controller or played silently and only audible through headphones. The piano can be connected to a digital keyboard, which can then be used as a remote control to play the piano. Some player systems come with speakers to allow the piano to play along to backing tracks. And the Steinway Spirio can connect to broadcasts and stream live concerts performed by Steinway artists so you can watch the performance from your own living room on your very own piano (hologram of pianist not included…at least not at the time of this writing).
Installing a player system
To determine if a piano is a good candidate for a player system, the piano will first need to be assessed to determine if the instrument can handle the modifications that will be required for installation. The piano itself needs to be fully functioning. The player system will not fix nor compensate for any pre-existing conditions of the piano. The piano will still need to be tuned regularly, as well as receive regulation and voicing services to maintain its best sound and quality.
For the installation, the piano would be moved into the technician’s shop. The process takes about a week to complete, including installation, calibrations, and modifications before moving the piano back into the home. Installation involves precisely cutting some holes into the keybed (underside of the keyboard) to insert the robotic parts. However, a skilled installer will be able to perform an installation that is neat, tidy, and minimally noticeable visually. The piano will still be perfectly playable in its manual state, as well.
Look how far they’ve come
Player systems have come a long way in the past 120+ years, but they’re still accomplishing what the original makers set out to do…make the enjoyment of piano music accessible no matter what your musical skill level. Alaska Piano Services helps support these modern digital systems through services, upgrades, and installations so you too “can find full and adequate expression for the love of music that is within you.”
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “player piano.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 3 Feb 2023, https://www.brittanica.com/art/player-piano. Accessed 22 March 2023.
Grew, Sydney. The Art of the Player-Piano. London: Kagan Paul, Trench, Trbner and Co., Ltd, 1922. Jan. 8, 2023. Accessed on April 14, 2023. https://archive.org/details/artofplayerpiano0000grew/mode/2up “How a player piano works.” The Player Piano Page, 25 January 2006, https://www.pianola.com/ppworks.htm
“How Does a Player Piano Work?--A Basic Explanation. Youtube, uploaded by Chris Plaola, 6 May 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GcmGyhc-IA
The Aeolian Company advertisement. The Piano Player Review, Vol. 1, No. 5, Feb. 1913.
May 3, 2017. Accessed on March 28, 2023. https://archive.org/details/pianoplayerrevie15birm/page/n3/mode/2up