Player piano

The player piano is a type of piano that plays music without the need for a human pianist to depress the normal keys or pedals. Instead, these are moved by mechanical, pneumatic or electrical means. One cannot say that this musical instrument was invented by any one person, since its many distinguishing features were developed over a long period of time, principally during the second half of the 19th century. An early example was the Pianista, developed by Henri Fourneaux in 1863, though ultimately the best known was the Pianola, originally created by Edwin Scott Votey in 1895 at his home workshop in Detroit. Player pianos were sometimes built with combinations of string and wind music boxes built into them, under brand names such as Orchestrion and Violina. These massive devices were the most complicated mechanical musical instruments ever built, with the exception of a few organs. The player piano was most popular in the first half of the 20th century, roughly at the same time as the acoustic gramophone.


Types of Player Piano

The most commonly found older player pianos are pneumatic, powered by vacuum (via foot pedals or electric motors). There are two main types: one fully automatic which faithfully reproduces a pianist's interpretation of the music, and one which lacks the nuance of live performance. Nowadays, these are usually known as the reproducing piano and the pianola respectively, though there are also instruments that cross this exact division. Originally, the Pianola (with a capital 'P') was a registered tradename of the Aeolian Company.

The most familiar type of pneumatic player piano looks like a normal upright piano, but has a mechanism controlled by a paper music roll contained within the cabinet of the piano itself. However, the original pneumatic players were constructed in a separate cabinet, which was placed in front of the keyboard of an ordinary piano, in such a way that a series of felt-covered wooden or metal "fingers" were located above each key of the piano and struck the corresponding note as indicated by the music roll. Most include one or more moving "feet" to control the piano's pedals as well. Not surprisingly, these early instruments came to be known as cabinet players or vorsetzers. From around 1908, the roll mechanisms were also built into grand pianos.

Ampico (American Piano Company), Welte-Mignon, Duo-Art (Aeolian) are a few of the popular brands of (now antique) reproducing piano mechanisms. Each uses a different encoding method for the paper music roll and different internal systems to control the piano during playback. These mechanisms were retro-fitted into many different piano brands (Steinway, Marshall and Wendall, Kimball, etc.)

Music Rolls

Music rolls for pneumatic player pianos, often known as piano rolls, consist of continuous sheets of paper, about 11 1/4 inches wide and generally no more than 100 feet in length, rolled on to a protective spool, rather like a large cotton reel. The paper is perforated with small holes according to the pattern of the notes to be played. On reproducing rolls, additional holes control the volume level, accents, pedals, etc., to faithfully recreate the original performance.

Modern Player Pianos

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Player and control unit of Yamaha Disklavier Mark III
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Synthesizer control unit of Yamaha Disklavier Mark III

Later developments of the reproducing piano include the use of magnetic tape rather than piano rolls to record and play back the music, and, in the case of one instrument made by Bösendorfer, computer assisted playback. Almost all modern player pianos use MIDI to interface with computer equipment. Live performance or computer generated music can be recorded in MIDI file format for accurate reproduction later on such instruments.

At present, in 2005, several player piano conversion kits are available (PianoDisc, Pianomation, etc.), allowing the owners of normal pianos to convert them into computer controlled instruments. The conversion process usually involve cutting open the bottom of the piano to install mechanical parts under the keyboard. Most modern player pianos come with an electronic device that can record and playback MIDI files on floppy disks and/or CD ROMs, and a MIDI interface that enables computers to drive the piano directly for more advanced operations.

Yamaha produces the Disklavier, a reproducing piano that is controlled by solenoids and optical sensors for each key. The optical sensors record the notes and key velocity played by the performer, without needing any physical contact with the keys. This contact-less design allows accurate recording without affecting the movement of the keys in any way. The solenoids move the keys in response to the recorded MIDI events during playback. One minor limitation of the Disklavier is that it is restricted to playing sixteen notes at any one time, meaning that for any complex music (such as the piano rolls of George Gershwin's 'An American in Paris',) two synchronized instruments have to be used. The Mark III series of the Disklavier is integrated with a CD drive that can play several variations of Yamaha softwares. Since the Mark III Disklavier is equipped with a full synthesizer, a CD player, and a stereo audio system, it can playback acoustic piano part with synthesized music and voice recording on the CD. The Mark III also supports a silent mode where all the piano strings are muted and the piano sound is played by the synthesizer through the head phones. The feature allows late night piano practice without waking up the neighbors. Yamaha also produces piano accompaniment software on floppy disc that goes with off-the-shelf popular music. The listener is able to play their flavorite artist's regular CD on a Stereo system and at the same time play a special floppy on the piano that would synchronize the piano part with the rest of the music. Beginner piano player can also plays a special software called SmartKey on the Disklavier. The piano would pause and prompt the player to press the next key. As the beginner plays his part, the piano would play the more complex part to follow.

Another company, QRS Inc. of the USA, make the most sophisticated type of reproducing piano system, called Pianomation, which does not have the limitations of the other manufacturers products. It can play 80 notes at a time, plus fully orchestrated backing with vocals from original artists from the internal hi-fi system built in. QRS also have the largest software catalogue of 7000 titles (to date).

In 2005, the Yamaha Disklavier Mark IV was released in Grand Piano form. This technologically advanced piano features a wireless touch screen controller to control all aspects of the piano's functions. It introduced a new 'greyscale' optical sensing system which senses the position of the key without having contact with the key, and thus does not interfere with the touch of the piano. It is equipped with an XG tone generator and a Yamaha hi-fi system mounted under the piano. It has an 80Gb hard drive where the user can store many hours of performances, including data for playing the piano, audio files, and data files for the XG tone generator, or a combination of all. The Disklavier can be controlled by a computer, and data generated from the Disklavier can be recorded by the Disklavier, or sent to a computer. The Disklavier is a centre-piece for the International Piano e-competition, where performers from all over the world perform on Yamaha CFIIIS concert grands equipped with Disklavier technology connected to the internet. This competition means that performers regardless of location can perform at other locations without the limitations and variations of audio recording, and playback for a level playing field in the competition.

Player Pianos versus Electronic Pianos

The distinction between a player piano and an electronic piano lies in the reproduction of the sound. A player piano is an acoustic piano where the sound is produced by moving the keys, which in turn cause the hammers to strike the piano strings. An electronic piano produces its sound by means of a synthesizer that drives a pair of loudspeakers.

See also

Player Piano is also a novel by Kurt nl:Pianola


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