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Forgotten Technologies of Recorded Music: The Player Piano

Pianola, player piano

When you’re starting a career in sound engineering, you naturally want to work with the latest technology. But it can also be instructive to look backwards. When we take a closer look at antiquated technologies, we can learn a lot about how the music business has changed, and also in many ways how it wasn’t. For example, the player piano, aka the pianola.

The idea of self-playing instruments has been around for a long time. In ninth-century Baghdad, a trio of scholarly brothers invented a hydro-powered organ and a steam-powered flute. Similarly in the eighteenth century, we see the more familiar music box, a spring-powered machine that played melodies. Often these boxes were outfitted clever mechanical devices like this one with tiny moving ships or this lovely “singing bird box.” 

Another popular self-playing instrument was the “street organ” or “street piano” played with a hand-crank by an organ-grinder. (Yes, they often had monkeys.)

Pianola

All of these were clever inventions, but not viable for an evening of music at home — until the late nineteenth century, when a number of inventors hit on the idea of self-playing piano. Like the early car industry, the player-piano industry was also marked by a number of inventor-entrepreneurs fighting for market share. A notable figure was Edwin S. Votey, who in 1898 patented the “pianola,” a device that could be wheeled up to a piano.

As a result, manufacturers hit upon the idea of having the player inside the piano. They put players inside organs as well, and added snare drums and tambourines.

Either way, the technology was similar. Player pianos were powered by food treadles, like old sewing machines, the pumped air through the machine. It was “programmed” by a paper roll with up to 88 holes — one for each key. When air went through a hole, it caused a small pneumatic device to strike a particular key.

Having a piano in your home was a sign of middle-class gentility. Because of the economy of scale that mass manufacturing allowed meant that more Americans could afford a player piano. In 1918, the New York Times reported that there was “800 Player-Pianos East of the Mississippi.” By 1919, player pianos outsold standard pianos. In the early 20s, 85% of new pianos were self-playing.

Player pianos became a part of public life in America, sometimes in weird ways. In 1922 one Edward Peterson was being celebrated by a dinner party at a friend’s house. Peterson excused himself during the last course to put Let the Rest of the World Go By on the player piano. Hearing “the report of a revolver,” his friends ran to find Peterson “leaning against the piano, dead.”

A less creepy example is this hilarious scene from the Marx Brothers’ 1932 Horsefeathers, where a player piano is the background music for their barroom antics.

Victrola

So what killed this hugely popular device and industry? What we’d now call today “disruption” — new technologies that completely rearranged how Americans listened to music. For the player piano, it was the radio. Although unlike the player piano, you couldn’t choose exactly which song you wanted to hear on the radio, you knew when you could hear your favorite kind of music, as well as news and radio shows. And when the price of Victrolas went down, suddenly Americans could play whatever song they wanted, as often as they liked.

The piano player couldn’t compete. By the 1930s, secondhand companies were removing the self-playing mechanism and selling them as regular pianos.

Today the technology lives on only due to the efforts of enthusiasts. Although the Yamaha Disklavier is also a self-playing piano, it’s a niche instrument, costing upwards of tens of thousands of dollars.

The rise and fall of the player piano isn’t necessarily a sad story. You can think of it as a reminder to keep your eyes open for new technologies as you make your way in your own career. Even better, you can think of it as a reminder of how much Americans love music.

Located in the heart of Minneapolis’ arts and entertainment district, the Institute of Production and Recording provides hands-on training in media, video, sound, music and live show production.  Learn more about our Audio Production Program.