For those who are not familiar with this instrument, it is best
described simply as a self-playing piano. The notes to be played
are represented by tiny perforations on interchangeable rolls of
paper, while the player mechanism is powered entirely by suction,
generated by the operation of two foot pedals.
The operator, or 'pianolist', achieves dynamic shading of the music
by varying the degree of pressure applied to the foot pedals. In
addition, a set of hand-operated levers mounted just below the front
of the keyboard provide accentuation, tempo control, activation
of the sustain and soft pedals and selection of play and rewind
modes. In the hands of an accomplished operator, a convincingly
lifelike musical performance is achievable.
The player piano enjoyed its peak of popularity between 1900 and
1930, after which time the wireless, which was significantly cheaper
and more versatile, became the main source of home entertainment.
As the vast majority of player pianos are now at least seventy years
old and many are sadly dilapidated, enthusiasts all over the world
are devoting much time and effort to the restoration of these remarkable
The paper music rolls are still available in abundance, both old
and new and almost all musical tastes are catered for. During the
first three decades of the twentieth century, a substantial number
of famous pianists committed their performances to music roll, by
means of special recording pianos. The rolls recorded by George
Gershwin for example are still popular today and although original
examples are now scarce, specialists meet the demand from collectors
by producing excellent new copies.
A player piano can of course be played by hand in the normal way,
as the piano action and keyboard are entirely conventional. In fact,
it is usually possible to play the keyboard while the roll mechanism
is in operation, should any additional notes or harmonies be desired!
The term 'Pianola' was originally a trademark, first used by the
Aeolian Company just over a hundred years ago, but in more recent
times has become a generic reference to the self-playing piano.