Mechanical Reproductions, Pt 1: The Player Piano as Domestic Machine

The player piano owns a particularly strange place in the milieu of not only the Ragtime era, but also of the modern era of musical history generally. The player piano is not an instrument of the traditional sense; it is a machine that just happens to play music, and, like the Phonograph or the Victrola, was another domestic appliance used for entertainment in the home. But with the addition of a new contraption to the home, a new technology which sometimes replaced the traditional manual piano, also came changes in the culture of the piano during the 1910s. The manual piano, after all, required years of training and practice, while the mechanical piano merely was a machine that mechanically reproduced music through the guise of a piano. Playing the mechanical piano only required basic mastery of a few rudimentary controls for tempo, tone and volume as well as the operation of foot pedals to activate pneumatic bellows. While the player piano did not significantly or directly impact the course of pop song history in America, as a new piece of domestic machinery and coin-operated entertainment, it took away the culture of work necessary to play the piano, and instead made live music mechanized, more user-friendly and more available for music consumers in the early twentieth century.

Mechanical instruments which did not require artistic interaction from a musician had long been a tradition in Europe for centuries, but in the 1900s and 1910s, the player piano would capture the attention of music consumers in America. By combining the domestic tradition of the piano with the mechanical spirit of the industrial revolution in the United States, player piano companies built a large business during the 1910s based partly on marketing the ease of using their products. What would eventually become the complete player piano containing the pneumatics and piano action into a single instrument, was far from perfect, and in the business of piano companies and piano roll makers, there had been a complete lack of unity in format, causing a chaotic business environment which hindered growth. But after standards for piano rolls and keyboard range had been approved by manufacturers in 1910, the player piano quickly took a large market share from traditional piano makers, who were themselves eager to get into the suddenly popular mechanical piano trade. As the player piano became the newest domestic appliance to own, the American attitude towards the piano had transformed, so much so that learning to play the instrument, a task cherished by Victorian Age society, fell by the wayside. The player piano eventually fell out of favour as the Jazz Era and eventually the Great Depression drastically reduced relevance in domestic ownership of the instrument. But revived interest in ragtime music during the 1960s and 1970s brought resurgent enthusiasm in the player piano and in the twenty-first century, player pianos have a lucrative place in the American antiques market. The player piano as a machine has had great effects on the musical culture regarding the place of the piano in the home during the 1910s.

By the time mechanical pianos in the United States had been patented and marketed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, automated mechanical musical instruments had been in existence for centuries, if not a millennium. Automated organs partly powered by water had been used as far back as eighth century Byzantium.[1] In Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, various forms of peg and pin systems, in which raised protrusions rhythmically strike tuned pegs, became popular including the barrel organ, a mechanical instrument for which famous composers like Mozart, Haydn, Handel and Beethoven wrote compositions specifically for mechanical reproduction.[2] In addition to mechanical instruments, there was a decorative niche for smaller mechanical music automata, music boxes and key-wound trinkets becoming the latest fashionable home accessory including musical snuff boxes, chiming clocks, coin operated peg and pin disc machines, carillon bells, and mechanisms featuring singing birds.[3] The concept of a piano that could play itself was also not new in the 1890s, in fact the slow evolution in developing the complex pneumatic components of the mechanical piano would take decades. Numerous patents had been filed for “self-acting” piano internationally throughout the nineteenth century. Muzio Celementi filed a patent in Britain in 1825, JB Napoleon Fourneaux filed a French patent in 1863 and John McTammany filed an American patent in 1881.[4] Long before the invention and production of player pianos, mechanical music not requiring a musician had already been a well-established pop culture phenomenon.

What would eventually become the player piano as remembered in the twenty-first century, would take over two decades of evolutionary development in America. No single inventor can claim to fully invent the player piano; its complex system of pneumatic components developed slowly and the list of patented pieces of the early mechanical piano player is lengthy.[5] A small sampling of important components include the piano roll and tracker bar function patented by Elias Parkman Needham in 1865, a cam which internally depressed the piano key patented by Merritt Gally in 1881, and the “slide valve wind motor” which allowed the rotation of the paper piano roll developed by George B Kelly in 1886.[6] Early machines using pneumatic systems like the relatively successful Aeolian Pianola, developed by Edwin S Votey in 1897, were separate machines powered by the operator, machines whose owners pushed to the keyboard and whose operation involved pneumatic system activating wooden fingers that physically depressed the keys of already-owned pianos.[7] Early modern self-contained pianos came onto the market in the early 1900s, and as the decade progressed, they surpassed the push-up machines in popularity. Even though initial sales were slow, there was a substantial buzz in music circles and by advertising as the newest thing to have, advertising the “beauty and fashion” captured by the new machines and how such machines “double the value of the piano player” with the addition of new player pianos to the home.[8] Not all opinions were positive for the player piano, the Music Teachers National Association was particularly vocal in opposition to the mechanical piano.[9] The development of the mechanisms for the player piano would take decades to come to maturity by many different inventors, when the new machines came to the market it was another futuristic technological marvel.

With these early machines, there certainly was room for improvement in both the mechanics for the pianos and the business model for compatibility between paper piano rolls and pianos. The Aeolian Pianola had created substantial advertising buzz and some commercial success between 1900 and 1905, but a separate cabinet proved delicate and bothersome. The Pianola and other push-up piano players like the Wilcox and White Angelus oftentimes were cumbersome and clumsy, taking up too much space in the home or even forgotten about entirely and falling into disuse.[10] If the fingers of the machine were not lined up precisely with the keyboard, the result would be an atonal sonic mess. The delicate external fingers sometimes snapped off when moving it back and forth, consequently rendering some notes unplayable. The complete piano which contained the piano, the pneumatic functions and the paper roll tracker bar alleviated the difficulties of the mechanical piano player, but the array of new companies getting into the trade of a new technology brought a lack of cohesion to the industry. With little organization between piano and piano roll companies, there was frequent consumer confusion about which piano rolls to purchase. In addition to the format difficulties, much to the shock of many consumers, not all player pianos produced a full keyboard worth of playability, and while some played all eight-eight notes of a standard keyboard, others produced as few as fifty-eight notes with many other variations on the keyboard range of the player pianos.[11] Sound was also a problem since, as a machine, it reproduced music as one would expect a machine would, without the expression and interpretation of a musician. Even with control functions available on player pianos, many owners of these new mechanical pianos used them like phonographs as passive music, just activating the pneumatic controls or eventually electric start functions and letting the piano play without tending to the tone functions.[12] Despite the technological development of a piano which played itself, there were issues with the early machines and the compatibility between rolls and pianos.

Without a standard for piano rolls, it was not possible to play one company’s piano roll on another company’s machine and, according to Harvey Roehl, “it was an obvious hindrance to the health and progress of the industry.”[13] And so, in 1908 in Buffalo, New York, an agreement had been reached on standards for perforation spacing on the piano roll and key range, consequently, with a unified system of piano roll publications, consumers could purchase any piano roll and play on any machine.[14] After standardization, the player piano swelled in popularity during the 1910s. Between 1909 and 1914, sales jumped from 30,000 player pianos to over 90,000, rising again between 1914 and 1919 to nearly 200,000.[15] Piano roll sales were also brisk, it has been reported that in 1918, 75,000 rolls sold in Philadelphia each month.[16] Various new companies clamoured to produce their own player pianos and a bevy of new models came on the market during the 1910s, each with various themes on other brand names mimicking the famous Pianola. The Technola, Interiola, Concertola, Autotone, Concrtone, Dulcitone, Auto-Grand, Auto-Player and Autola are just some of the names of mechanical pianos. The ways the player piano sounded also improved with reproducer functions provided by companies like Ampico and Duo-Art which automated the sorts of controls including hammer velocity, sustained pedalling and artistic expression, and paper rolls subsequently had the ability to reproduce a live performance recorded on paper piano roll.[17] Following standardization in compatibility and improvements in sound reproduction, a sales boom throughout the 1910s created a big business which translated into sales.

Other than giving music-purchasing consumers a new product to buy, the player piano, and even the push-up piano player of early in the 1900s, changed the relationship between the owner and the keyboard. The player piano, after all was a machine which played live music and in the home it was usually treated as such. While music had been played through the familiar medium of the sounds of the traditional, manual piano, the player piano depresses the keys for the operator, leaving the owner of the instrument to master tone, treble, bass, tempo and pneumatic foot pedals rather than the techniques of piano mastery. There was relatively little skill to operate a player piano and its easy operation was used for the purpose of marketing and advertising. The famous advertising campaign of the Gulbransen Company showed a baby at the foot pedals, suggesting that it was so easy to use that an infant could do it.[18] Even the femininity of the piano was challenged with direct advertising to men, after all, if playing the piano was considered feminine, then operating a machine was considered masculine. During a boom in sales during the 1910s, as player piano sales increased, fewer people were learning the instrument that had been at the heart of Victorian age domestic values. Harvey Reohl observes that “the ease with which even poor-sounding music could be made destroyed the incentive to want to learn to play by manual means”[19] and James Parakilas notes that, “the technology of the player piano could obliterate that obstacle [of learning the piano], eliminating even the choice between learning to read notes and learning to play by ear.”[20] With the popularity of the player piano increasing, it was a futuristic technological step and advertising as an easy machine to operate, leaving the tiresome practice of the Victorian piano culture in the past with more consumers opting for the player piano.

While the player piano changed the owner’s relationship to the piano, its overall popularity was brief. Despite Alfred Dolge’s assertion in 1911 that the player piano is “destined eventually to displace the piano as the musical instrument in the home,”[21] sales actually peaked between 1919 and 1921, and thereafter dropped precipitously for the next decade; by 1930, the player had become a footnote in the musical history in America.[22] There are a number of plausible reasons why the player piano fell out of fashion. New technology certainly played a part in the mechanical piano’s drop in sales when inventions like radio and electrically recorded music became the latest technology to have in the home during the 1920s. After all, in 1903, the player piano itself was the latest invention in a culture feeling the effects of pop culture in an age of rapid technological change. But there was a change in the piano in culture as well. The changing nature in popular music and musical culture aided the player piano’s drop in sales. During the 1920s, in the thick of the orchestrated band sounds of the Jazz Era, the piano was not necessarily the centre of attention of entertainment that it had been during the Ragtime Era; it should be noted that manual piano companies also experienced decrease in sales. By the 1930s, when the Great Depression gripped American business and American pop culture tuned into the growing number of many popular radio programmes and variety shows,[23] many piano companies, both mechanical and manual had gone out of business.[24] While the player piano did at one time had been the newest technology to have, it was just a fad and by the mid-1930s, the player piano market was a shell of what it had been only a decade before.

Even though the financial crises caused by the Great Depression left many piano manufacturers, both manual and mechanical, bankrupt, a few companies managed to not only survive, but also change with the technology as time progressed. When the American economy recovered at the end of the second World War, a select few piano companies such as Aeolian, Duo-Art and Wurlitzer continuing to sell and market player pianos. Even in 2014, in the heart of the big beats and hip-hop features of the Club Banger Era, there are still companies producing player pianos using digital files to activate the piano action[25] and QRS Technologies, a company in the music business since 1900,[26] still continues to manufacture new paper piano rolls.[27] The player piano also invokes nostalgia for the Ragtime Era and machines have become priceless antiques along the way. During the 1960s and 1970s, when Ragtime had experienced a upsurge in popularity in Marvin Hamlisch’s soundtrack to the movie The Sting (1973) and pop culture expressed by E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime (1975), so did the player piano, which had suddenly become a symbol of the culture of the early twentieth century.[28] In the twenty-first century, the player piano still has popularity with a certain crowd as part of the reminiscence for the era; collectors, restoration hobbyists and businesses enjoy their own part of the lucrative antiques trade in mechanical pianos, some restored player pianos fetch prices in the tens of thousands of dollars.[29]Although the player piano has been artifact of the past, it enjoys popularity and value in the twenty-first century.

The purely mechanical functions of the player piano greatly affected the musical ethos of the Ragtime era. Oftentimes, the player piano is remembered most for its raucous piano pieces of irregularly rhythmic music and this sort of nostalgia fuels a greater demand for the instrument among avid collectors and antiques enthusiasts. However, during their time, the player piano, and even the push-up piano player, were revolutionary in their treatment of piano play, redirected from beneath the fingers of many a Victorian Age lady, and placed directly under the direction of an operator who could pump the pedals and thread the paper piano roll across a tracker bar. Consequently as the 1910s progressed, sales of the player piano rose to their zenith while sales in manual piano slowed until, by the time the American economy was in the depths of the Great Depression during the 1930s, both industries were lesser part of the domestic entertainment than, say, record players or radio shows, which were available over the airwaves for free. But, the player piano remains a small part of the music industry, undergoing both modernization in digital technology and older antiques are loved among enthusiasts for its connection with the past of American musical culture, even in the twenty-first century.

References

Antique Piano Shop. “Player Piano Showroom.”Accessed 10 July 2014. http://antiquepianoshop.com/products/player/.

Burg, David F. The Great Depression: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File. 1996.

Chanan, Michael. “The Player Piano.” Contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. James Parakilas, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1999. 72-75.

Dolge, Alfred. Pianos and Their Makers: A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano. New York: Dover Publications. 1972.

Good, Edwin M. “The Digital Revolution.” Contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. James Parakilas, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1999. 70-72.

“Gulbransen Exhibits at Pageant of Progress.” The Music Trades. 16 September 1922.

“An Introduction to the Aeolian Push Up Pianola.” YouTube video, 7:48. Posted by awardaudio, 24 March 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiYKpUSfC6c.

Isacoff, Stuart. A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians—from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2011.

Parakilas, James. “Expanding Markets.” Contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. James Parakilas, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1999. 283-303.

Pfirrmann, John A. “The Age of the Music Box.” The Passaic County Historical Society. Accessed 14 July 2014. http://www.lambertcastle.org/musicbox.html.

QRS Music Technologies. “The History of QRS Music Technology.” Accessed 13 July 2014.http://www.qrsmusic.com/history.asp.

Roehl, Harvey. Player Piano Treasury: The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Piano in America. Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press. 1973.

Roell, Craig H. The Piano in America: 1890-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1989.

Sumner, William Leslie. The Pianoforte. London, UK: MacDonald. 1966.

Waldo, Terry. This is Ragtime. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1976.

[1] William Leslie Sumner, The Pianoforte, (London, UK: MacDonald, 1966), 194.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John A. Pfirrmann, “The Age of the Music Box,” The Passaic County Historical Society, accessed 14 July 2014, http://www.lambertcastle.org/musicbox.html.

[4] Stuart Isacoff, A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music the Musicians—from Mozart to Modern Jazz and everything in Between, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2011), 459

[5] For a basic introduction on the mechanical functions of the player piano’s pneumatic systems, see William Leslie Sumner, The Pianoforte, 194-195.

[6] Harvey Roehl, Piano Player Treasury: The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Piano in America, (Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press, 1977), 4-5.

[7] For a look at the operation of a push-up piano player, see “An Introduction to the Aeolian Push Up Pianola,” YouTube video, 7:48, posted by award audio, 24 March 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiYKpUSfC6c.

[8] Advertisements for the Behr Piano Player and the Apollo Piano Players respectively, contained in Roehl, 12 and 9.

[9] Craig H. Roell, The Piano in America: 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 53.

[10] Ibid, 41.

[11] Roehl, 12

[12] Roell, 43.

[13] Roehl, 12.

[14] Michael Chanan, “The Player Piano,” contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, James Parakilas, ed, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 73.

[15] Sales figures found in “Production of all Types of Player Piano in the United States from 1900 to 1931,” contained in Roehl, 53.

[16] Roell, 52.

[17] Ibid, 43.

[18] “Gulbransen Exhibit at Pageant of Progress,” The Music Trades, 16 September 1922, 30.

[19] Reohl, 10.

[20] James Parakilas, “Expanding Markets,” contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, James Parakilas, ed, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 290.

[21] Alfred Dolge, Pianos and Their Makers: A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano, (New York: Dover, 1966), 131.

[22] Roehl, 53.

[23] David F. Burg, The Great Depression: An Eyewitness History, (New York: Facts on Files, 1996), 74-75.

[24] Roell, 219.

[25] Edwin M Good, “The Digital Revolution,” contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, James Parakilas, ed, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 70.

[26] “The History of QRS Music Technology,” QRSmusic.com, accessed 13 July 2014, http://www.qrsmusic.com/history.asp.

[27] Isacoff, 160.

[28] Terry Waldo, This is Ragtime, (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc, 1976), 183.

[29] Based on price lists of restored player pianos featured at “Player Piano Showroom,” Antique Piano Shop, accessed 10 July 2014, http://antiquepianoshop.com/products/player/.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

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