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The Ol Pianola

Black Keys. Credit: Hryck 

An Inversion In Terms

The self-playing piano was born in the 19th century workshop of Edwin Scott Votey before being placed into production by the Aeolian Company three years later in 1898. An improvement upon pre-existing mechanisms, it soon became the preeminent type of piano player. The pianola, or ‘push-up,’ as it came to be known, literally rolled in front of any piano and ‘played’ its keyboard with a system of felt-covered fingers. The device became very popular despite its somewhat clunky appearance.

Inevitably, a more elegant solution evolved and the external mechanism was then built inside the piano itself, resulting in the inversion of the term from piano player to a player piano.

Not As Easy As One Might Think

Autopiano. Credit: halfrain 

To operate the pianola, the pianolist applied pressure to two foot-pedals, which in turn produced suction to manipulate various inner mechanisms, while a perforated music roll rotated the specific notes and chords of a particular piece of music.

Just like a conventional pianist, the pianolist had to practice to successfully control the dynamic range of the sound. In addition to foot-pedals, a system of levers permitted further fidelity, including one that modified the tempo, adjusting “the speed at which the music roll passe[d] over the tracker bar,”  as well as several graduated subduing levers, a sustaining pedal lever, and a soft pedal lever.

Rolls were often “themodised,” to allow the pianolist to make a song’s theme or melody prominent.

The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Parallel to the inception of the pianola, and before the quality of the phonograph much improved, the reproducing piano was capable of playing back the complete performance of a master pianist, having captured the ‘rubato, dynamics and pedalling’ onto the roll. Many virtuosi contributed to the library of early recordings, preserving essential facsimiles of early 20th century live performances; the Aolean American classical series, featuring noted pianists and composers, produced some 2,000 rolls.

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Metrostyle 4-Hands Player Piano Roll of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, 2nd Movement

The Duo-Art arrived nine years after the seminal Welte-Mignon (1904), and was delayed by the company’s chief ambition to produce a less passive instrument than its predecessors, one that could be played in three modes: “automatic performance, personal control of standard rolls, and the direct playing of the piano by hand.” 

Rather than just playing automatically, the ‘Metrostyle’ mode, in particular, afforded the player the ability to interpret the roll with precision, using a tempo lever in conjunction with pedal work to produce the textures of a complex musical performance.

Demand for the reproducing piano began to decline after the Crash of 1929, losing out to newer technologies, namely the electronic phonograph and the global phenomenon of motion picture “talkies.”