Many of us remember seeing them in old Western movies or classic cartoons: a piano that could play itself. Once using metal barrels or rolls of paper inscribed with songs for the instrument to "read," player pianos enjoyed tremendous popularity over a century ago. In the modern day, they have experienced something of a resurgence, as many people find them ideal as a delightful novelty during parties and holidays, as a teaching tool for piano learners, or as a way to relax and savor beautiful live music without having to hire a pianist. Today’s player pianos can be easily controlled with an iPod, a tablet computer, or a smartphone, rather than with rolls of imprinted paper. With an elegant player piano, it’s simple to turn your sitting room into an old-fashioned saloon or a concert hall.
How Does a Player Piano Work?
When most people think of an automatic music-playing device, they think electronics, so they might be forgiven for concluding that a player piano, also called a pianola, is like a digital piano, playing back pre-recorded music. However, that’s not at all the case. Player pianos are real acoustic instruments, with hammers controlled by a pneumatic system striking metal strings to produce the rich, genuine tones of piano music. The keys depress when the hammers strike the strings, making it simple for a new piano student to follow along with the music as it plays. A musician can play a pianola using the keys in the conventional fashion while it self-plays, introducing variations, flourishes, or harmonies to the base musical piece. The pianola also works as a standard acoustic piano when the self-playing function is off, making it usable for practice or performance.
Early player pianos used rolls of paper with punched holes as the medium on which their music was recorded. Pneumatic systems would strike the keys when the holes in the music roll allowed the air through, playing the melody as the paper spooled across the reading bar. Many of these antique player pianos are still in use today, carefully maintained by collectors and music enthusiasts, and new music rolls can be made to allow the pianola to play modern songs. More recently produced player pianos use solenoids, devices that produce an electromagnetic charge when exposed to a current, to trigger pistons connected to the piano’s key action. Rather than using paper music rolls, modern player pianos use a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) as the source of their music. This interface can be controlled by computer devices like iPads and smartphones. Player piano owners can buy converted music rolls on the Internet, or record MIDI files of live performances to be played back by their own pianola. Many older player pianos have been converted to use MIDI instead of paper music rolls as well.
Player Pianos in Your Home
A player piano makes a wonderful addition to any home. As it is a fully operational acoustic piano in addition to its self-playing abilities, a pianola can serve the same functions as any other piano, whether you use it for composition, playing for company, accompanying a singer, rehearsals and practice, or a child’s piano lessons. Using MIDI recordings of your favorite piano pieces found on the Internet or recorded live at a concert or other performance, you can have your player piano perform those pieces "live" in your own home, or follow the keystrokes as the pianola plays and teach yourself to play the music. The player piano makes a fun substitute teacher for new piano learners as well, allowing them to see the sequence of notes and play it back as many times as they need without trying their piano teacher’s patience. When the holidays arrive, you can have your family and friends gather around the piano to sing along with their favorite songs and carols, without putting anyone on the spot to play the music.