Mechanical Reproductions, Pt 2: The Player Piano as Musical Instrument

During the 1910s and 1920s, the mechanical player piano became a popular and technologically forward-thinking form of entertainment. Like the Phonograph or the Victrola, the player piano gave their owners access to instant musical entertainment without the fuss of actually learning how to play a musical instrument or how to read sheet music. Consequently, the mechanical piano as a domestic appliance partly aided in the cultural collapse of home piano playing. On the other hand, the player piano gave consumers, some of whom were completely unable to play a musical instrument, the opportunity to enjoy live music in the home, albeit reproduced mechanically through the guise of a musical instrument. The idiosyncrasies of fewer people learning to play the piano with a growing interest in piano music cannot be more blatant during this transitional period from Ragtime Era to the Jazz Era in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The former asserts that the manual piano was falling out of fashion, while the latter shows that there was still a considerable consumer market for piano music. As a machine, the player piano was a brief fad that had transformative effects on piano culture in America; as a musical instrument, it expanded the reach of piano music in the home.

The results of mechanical reproduction of piano music were widely varied from context to context, but most of piano culture had been affected by the player piano. Within the home, the piano roll transformed musicianship of piano playing into musical ownership of mass produced piano rolls, passive music that anybody with the financial means of purchasing a player piano could enjoy. This change also happened in commercial settings like restaurants and saloons to provide background music, as well as movie theatres to provide a soundtrack to early, otherwise silent films. The piano roll medium also had influence on classical composers eager to tap the experimental potential of a machine that lacked the limitations of human play. For pop song history in the United States, mechanically reproduced piano music and lushly arranged piano rolls helped to popularize stylized ragtime novelty piano pieces during an era when ragtime was already out of fashion in favour of the orchestras of the early Jazz Era. Finally, there was one significant cultural change incurred by the sheer anonymity of the player piano roll. African American musicians, who were oftentimes segregated from white mass commercial audiences, found that they could record their own piano performances and earn commercial success without their audiences knowing they were listening to black musicians. Despite the fad of the player piano, the medium had diverse effects on American musical culture.

Throughout the Ragtime Era, the Victorian-age ethos of domestic piano playing had declined but with the player piano, a new, more accepting attitude about mechanisation and modernisation in music was taking hold with music purchasing consumers. The attitudes of many Americans at the time had shifted to positively embracing mechanical reproducing music. Machines which produced music like talking machines and mechanical pianos were considered part of the musical future, and according to James Haskins, “time is money, and if a middle-class family could afford a Pianola[1] and piano rolls, then they did not have to waste time learning to play on a standard piano.”[2] This new attitude towards mechanically reproduced music changed the culture surrounding the domestic piano away from musicianship and art form and towards music ownership of an entertaining consumer commodity; where music was consumed passively rather than engaged actively on the keyboard. While mastery of the keyboard took months and sometimes years to produce good music, the owner of the player piano could easily operate it and provide entertainment in the home without substantial musical expertise. Many popular titles throughout the 1900s were becoming widely available on piano rolls for consumers. This new passive form of entertainment also meant that player piano owners could also gain wider access to classical music, some compositions of which had been beyond the skill level of even more experienced players. Many titles of the classical music canon consequently became must-have piano rolls, compositions that showed one’s knowledge of cultured music within the home music library.[3] With attitudes towards music changing, the player piano became the latest machine to own, ownership of which created the opportunity for anyone to enjoy live musical experiences in the home.

Passive piano music as entertainment was not confined to domestic environs, it was also available as a commercial venture and business found that they could earn revenue with a coin-operated player piano. Coin-operated music was nothing new to the public; in fact coin-operated Phonographs had entered public spaces as early as 1890.[4] As soon as standardized player pianos became widely available for purchase in the early 1910s, there were restaurants, saloons, cafes, train stations and even grocery store interested in purchasing special, more decorative coin-operated player pianos. These machines could provide business owners with a steady stream of revenue with each drop of a coin of a customer curious about the machine and so live, playerless music became public entertainment, passive background music and commercial investment. Businesses were even instructed by piano roll makers to keep up with the latest popular piano roll titles of to ensure that consumers got the freshest music possible, so customers would not become bored with stale music selections.[5] As well, during the 1910s when the early film industry operated without sound, movie houses and theatres found that they could incorporate a player piano to provide accompanying music, sometimes with piano rolls supplied directly by the movie studio with music synched with the action shown on screen, thus circumventing reliance on a human piano player. Complex player machines had been manufactured specifically for movie theatres to include any sound effect needed for a movie. The Link Piano Company advertised a player piano equipped with four tracker bars and roll mechanisms to facilitate “the right music at the right time,” along with a host of sound effects ranging from footsteps, to gun shots, to sirens and alarms to go along with the action happening before the audience’s eyes.[6] As soon as the mechanical piano became part of the music environment of America, there were also applications of passive music in commercial and industrial settings.

Of course, whenever a new technological development for music comes to the public’s attention, there are vocal critics to oppose it. Such was the case of the player piano, whose mechanical music worried some groups about the status of art in music while others worried that it would destroy their own musical occupations. One of the earliest groups to criticize the mechanisms of the player piano were the Music Teachers National Association, who feared that the widespread popularity of the player piano could lead to fewer people learning proper musical technique.[7] Although player pianos were often advertised and marketed for educational and instructional purposes, “it did not turn people into pianists,” according to Michael Chanan.[8] More opposition came from barbershop quartets, brass bands and orchestras, who saw coin-operated player pianos fitting into hotel lobbies, brothels, restaurants and train stations, places where they would generally be hired to provide background music. After all, bands had to be paid, but a player piano fitted with a coin slot could easily earn money for the proprietor. Composers were also alarmed at the player piano and the piano roll, since copyright law did not include mechanical reproduction; as a result, piano roll makers could produce any popular title they wanted without paying a royalty. Record companies had, in fact, worked closely with sheet music publishers and composers for years to promote sales of popular titles,[9] but piano roll companies that published titles without consultation with publishers, were on the fringes of musical publication. A new copyright law in 1909 had to be passed to include mechanical reproduction, including piano roll.[10] While the new technology allowed easier access to live piano music and ease of piano roll reproduction, there were detractors fearful about the changes in the music culture in America as a result from the player piano.

The music business also changed to include freshly arranged compositions and recordings for famous composers, all available in the paper piano roll format. Traditional manual piano composition and play was restricted to ten fingers, but the mathematical nature of piano roll production changed this considerably with its slits and perforations dictating the action of the piano keys. From the inception of the player piano industry, manufacturers could create perfectly, technically masterful performances, albeit with the lack of heart that a musician could play a composition.[11] As a mechanically produced product, the possibilities for the music contained on a piano roll were boundless; consequently, mechanical reproduction of the music on a paper piano roll could emulate harmony, rhythms and range that human hands could not. Staff arrangers at piano roll companies used this to their advantage, enriching the sounds of already produced titles by adding flourishes to music rolls including “counter melodies, double octaves, tremolos, rapid chromatic runs…all impossible to play by hand.”[12] In 1912, new technology which reproduced more artistic nuances in music for the player piano brought another dimension to the player piano by transcribing live performances on paper roll by ink ready for perforation.[13] A wide range of renowned Romantic composers recorded their own playing on piano rolls, including Camille Saint-Saëns, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Artur Rubenstein; piano roll recording subsequently becoming an “adjunct of musical culture.”[14] Ragtime composer Scott Joplin got into the commercial recording industry with his own piano playing transcribed to piano roll, even though his original performances from 1916 had been heavily edited and arranged to include new, humanly impossible playing.[15] Not only could the new recording mechanisms record the ways in which composers interpreted the piano, it also captured all their playing mistakes on paper roll, all of which could easily be repaired on the final version of the piano roll.[16] The medium of the piano roll could do much more than any single person could possibly perform on a piano.

The boundless world of player piano music gave inspiration to Modernist composers who, throughout the 1910s and 1920s, were eager to push the expanding boundaries of modern music. Perhaps the first composer to create a composition specifically for the player piano was Igor Stravinsky, producing the Étude pour Pianola in 1917. For Stravinsky, interest was in the “whimsicalities of the unexpected melodies of the mechanical piano” to emulate a pianist with “sixteen arms and no feelings.”[17] Claude Debussy also found similar inspiration in player piano. Perhaps the most notorious use of the mechanical piano composition was George Antheil’s La Ballet Mécanique, which had originally been scored to include sixteen simultaneous player pianos, sirens, tam tams, and aeroplane propellers.[18] Composer Conlon Nancarrow has composed over fifty studies specifically for the player piano to explore the “complex simultaneous sounding rhythms along with such impossibly wide reaches for the pianist’s hand.”[19] But composers quickly learned that concert application of the player piano was limited despite the futuristic idea of a piano that could play itself. In 1921, Stravinsky had planned on including a number of synchronized mechanical pianos into a performance of the ballet Les Noces, but due to time constraints and observed difficulties in synchronizing the machines, he abandoned the project in favour of an arrangement that opted for wind instruments and percussion.[20] At the well publicized 1927 debut of Ballet Mécanique at Carnegie Hall, synching four player pianos was too difficult for Antheil and the result was a lot of noise and riotous protest from the audience, along with a number of attendees loosing their hats due to wind from propellers; one critic expressed derision at the performance by quipping “don’t make a mountain out of an Antheil.”[21] But despite the difficulties of bringing to work to the stage, Ballet Mécanique was so futuristic that MIDI technology in the 1990s finally allowed a first perform the piece as planned by Antheil.[22] For composers, the player piano offered possibilities of realising futuristic sounds without interaction by human hands.

Even though there were few pop song consequences of the player piano as a musical instrument, but there was one pop area that did enjoy tremendous success, specifically linked to the popularity of the player piano. By 1917, when Tin Pan Alley composers were looking towards the war in Europe as a topic for commercial songs, a new musical trend was coming out of the piano rolls of music consumers, that of the novelty ragtime piano piece. “The most important medium in terms of the instrumental rag, however, was the player piano,”[23] according to Terry Waldo, a musical genre developed from new mechanical methods of arrangement and ornamentation.[24] During the late 1910s, the ragtime genre was on the decline, but the possibilities unleashed by piano rolls actually helped to produce a whole body of popular ragtime piano work. During the height of player piano popularity, piano techniques of accomplished ragtime pianists of sliding block chords and dizzying syncopated rhythms had found themselves on the pop market and the player piano was the preferred medium for hearing such pieces. The compositions of Zez Confrey like “Kitten on the Keys” (1921), “My Pet” (1921), “Dizzy Fingers” (1923), and “Stumbling” (1922) were well suited for the player piano of this new novelty piano style and becoming big selling hits for piano rolls. Other composers like Roy Bargy had novelty hits like his 1919 piano rag “Knice and Knifty.[25] There is a plausible reason for the upsurge in novelty piano at a time when pop audiences were more embracing the orchestration of Jazz. When these titles had been published between 1919 and 1921, the player piano was experiencing the zenith of sales and more people than ever were buying the instrument and the piano rolls played on them. As a new, rhythmic music on a popular medium, it makes sense that novelty piano enjoyed popularity at a time when Ragtime was out of fashion.

But there are other, more culturally significant aspects of the music of the player piano that changed the musical scene in the United States. Even though there had been successful African musicians and composers during the Ragtime era like recording artist George Washington Johnson, stage performer Bert Williams, and composers James Reese Europe and James P. Johnson, most music coming out of Tin Pan Alley and the recording studios were created by white composers and musicians. It had been a well-established tradition to “black-up” for stage and studio. Singer Al Jolson originally performed his vaudeville act and popular songs in blackface throughout the 1910s and Arthur Collins’s recordings in African American dialect were so successful that in 1905 Edison Records released a disclaimer proclaiming that “Mr. Collins is not a Negro.”[26] During the 1910s, African American pianists learned that they could record their piano playing and earn money selling performances, spread their reputations by quick distribution of paper piano rolls, all unbeknownst to the white consumers purchasing the new novelty piano rolls.[27] Perhaps the first black musician to record a piano roll was John “Blind” Boone in 1912 and stride piano player Eubie Blake made numerous paper roll recordings throughout his career. The piano roll was a revelation for some piano players. When he learned through the pages of The Etude magazine that a contraption called the Leabarjan Perforator could allow home dictation of piano playing “for pleasure or profit,”[28] J. Johnson Cook saved the advertisement for so long that “it began to yellow” for the hopes that he could buy such a mechanism.[29] In the late 1910s, aspiring pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller had practiced on the player piano to learn how to play music, consequently winning a contest and becoming hired to accompany movies at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem in 1919.[30] Piano roll recording was a source of delight for Waller; his son, Maurice, recounts that his father was so proud of his player piano recordings that he carried a piano roll of his most recent effort in his coat pocket.[31] Recording on a piano roll allowed black musicians to earn a living recording music for white audiences who may not know they were listening to black people play the piano.

Although the player piano had a brief overall popularity, after all, throughout the 1920s, radio broadcasts and Jazz Era music did their part in the decline of the piano, its musical capabilities had a diverse influence. Within the home, mechanical pianos allowed owners of any skill level to perform live music, albeit at the expense of actual musicianship. Businesses created a new stream of revenue by coin-operated player piano and the latest piano roll titles, and mechanical pianos player a part of the early years of silent film during the 1910s. The player piano, or more specifically the limitless capabilities of the piano roll, allowed classical composers an outlet for rhythmic and sonic experimentation. But for American pop song, the player piano introduced novelty ragtime piano piece and the playing styles of African American musicians to a mass commercial audience. This was not an insignificant development, considering the amount of segregation in the music industry during this era. The music of the player piano, a quaint distant memory of music history, certainly impacted numerous areas of the music industry.


Antheil, George. The Bad Boy of Music. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. 1945.

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.

Cheek, Joshua.   Liner notes to George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique. Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. NAXOS, 8.559060. CD. 1999.

Dolan, Brian. Inventing Entertainment: The Player Piano and the Origin of an American Musical Industry. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. 2009.

Fabrizio, Timothy C. and George F. Paul. The Talking Machines: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing. 1997.

Haskins, James. Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company. 1978.

Kirby, F.E. Music for Piano: A Short History. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press. 1995.

“‘Mr. Collins is not a Negro’—Edison Takes on the Rumor Mill.” The Mainspring Press Record Collector’s Blog (blog). Posted 8 March 2013.

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

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

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

Tancs, Linda. Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide. New York: Oceana. 2009.

Waldo, Terry. This Is ragtime. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1976.

Waller, Maurice and Anthony Calabrese. Fats Waller. New York: Schirmer Books. 1977.

Walsh, Stephen. Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934. New York: Alfred A Knoff. 1999.

[1] The brand name Pianola is often used as a synonym for the player piano.

[2] James Haskins, Scott Joplin: The Man who made Ragtime, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1978), 109.

[3] Brian Dolan, Inventing Entertainment: The Player Piano and the Origins of an American Musical Industry, (New York: Rownman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 138.

[4] Timothy C. Fabrizio and George F. Paul, The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium, 1877-1929, (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), 24.

[5] Craig H. Roell, The Piano in America, 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 59

[6] Roell, 51-52.

[7] Ibid, 55.

[8] Michael Chanan, “The Player Piano,” contained in Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, James Parakilas, ed, (New Hartford, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 74.

[9] Roell, 59.

[10] Copyright Law of 1909, contained in Linda Tancs, Understanding Copyright Law: A Beginner’s Guide, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Sect 78(e).

[11] Terry Waldo, This Is Ragtime, (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1976), 83.

[12] Waldo, 84.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Chanan, contained in Piano Roles, 73.

[15] Haskins, 193-194.

[16] William Leslie Sumner, The Pianoforte, (London, UK: MacDonald, 1966), 195.

[17] Igor Stravinsky, qtd in Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934, (New York: Alfred A Knoff, 1999), 282.

[18] Joshua Cheek, liner notes to George Antheil: Ballet Mécanique, Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, NAXOS, 8.559060, CD, 1999.

[19] F.E. Kirby, Music for Piano: A Short History, (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995), 381.

[20] Igor Stravinsky, qtd in Walsh, 323-324.

[21] George Antheil, The Bad Boy of Music, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Co, 1945), 195-196.

[22] Dolan, 172-3.

[23] Waldo, 82.

[24] Ibid, 84.

[25] Ibid, 85-86.

[26] “Mr. Collins is Not a Negro,” Edison Phonograph Monthly, June 1905, found on The Mainspring Press Record Collector’s Blog (blog), posted 8 March 2013, accessed 25 July 2014,

[27] Dolan, 94.

[28] Advertisement for the Leabarjan Perforator, contained in Harvey Roehl, Player Piano Treasury: The Scrapbook History of the Mechanical Player Piano, (Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press, 1973), 189.

[29] J. Johnson Cook, qtd in Dolan, 135.

[30] Dolan, 136.

[31] Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese, Fats Waller, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977), 46.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: