the pianola

The pianola is a semi- or fully automatic piano that plays perforated music rolls by a pneumatic system. The correct terms are “piano player” and “player piano”, but “Pianola”, originally a brand name under a patent by The Aeolian Company in New York, became a generic term for all brands and types. For those who could afford it, the pianola and gramophone were the most important music-making instruments in parlours at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The first pianola models, “piano players” or “push-ups” as they were called, were set up against a normal piano. The new invention was such a great success that, soon, pianos were available with the mechanism built in. These “player pianos” are the most common type of pianola.

Most pianolas are played by a pianolist who generates suction pressure for the pneumatic system by pressing 2 pedals. The player can also control the tempo and dynamics with handles and, thus, render a rather realistic and expressive interpretation without actually being a pianist. The notes are provided on the roll and only musicality and practice is required.

Manufacturers continued to further perfect the technique and, as early as 1905, the mechanical reproducing piano was introduced. Whereas previously the music was punched out of the paper based on a score, the new systems allowed a pianist’s artistic interpretation to be recorded on rolls, including dynamics, tempo and even pedalling. Rapidly improving electric technology made it possible to create a fully automatic piano that could play an accurate rendering of the original performance.

The foremost composers and pianists of the day such as Grieg, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky as well as Paderewski, Josef Hofmann, Leschetizsky and Horowitz made recordings for mechanical reproducing pianos. Much fewer examples of these Rolls-Royces of the pianolas have been preserved than their semi-automatic counterparts, and there are currently only a handful of specialists of these instruments in the world able to adequately bring out the full value of the rolls at a sufficiently high technical level.

Altogether, some 2 million pianolas were built during the first thirty years of the twentieth century and the repertoire includes thousands of titles. During its heyday, the repertoire available on rolls was as rich as the known piano repertoire at the time, including arrangements of opera and orchestral works, early jazz and light music. During the crisis years starting in 1930, the relatively expensive and large pianola disappeared and the public began to listen to the radio or electric gramophone.

Our thanks to
Kasper Janse – Pianola Museum, Amsterdam
Rex Lawson – The Pianola Institute, London