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MMD > Archives > December 1996 > 1996.12.12 > 05Prev  Next

Monograph: Player Pianos - draft
By Robbie Rhodes

Most folks have heard of the "roller piano" or "player piano" or "automatic piano".  This short paper explains the origin and further definition of the familiar terms.  When it's finished I hope to post the paper prominently at the Mechanical Music Digest website, thus the story must have immediate interest for the casual "browser" and not be overloaded with technicalities.  I welcome your comments toward improving this preliminary version.

Following the "Player Pianos" drafts are two other lists in which I try to organize all these different pianos and player devices. Comments on these lists also are requested.

I need more information about the European pianos for the lists.  Horst Mohr & Dan Wilson, can you help?

Robbie Rhodes

                             - - - -

Player Pianos, Part 1: Introduction & Manually-powered pianos

I define a "Player Piano" as a piano powered by foot-pedals or a hand-crank, and containing an added built-in mechanism which operates the piano keys in lieu of a human pianist.  Previously arranged musical data, stored as holes in punched paper or pins in a cylinder, is read by a data reader mechanism which ultimately operates the piano hammers.

"Barrel Piano" or "Roller Piano" is the name for the earliest form of player piano.  It is powered by a hand-crank and controlled by a pinned cylinder which resembles a biscuit roller the size of a tree trunk!  The hammer velocity is constant in a barrel piano; the only operator control is the cranking speed, which determines the music speed.

The beloved "Pianola" or "Phonola" (both names are famous brands) was produced in great quantity from about 1905 until the late 1920s.  The pneumatic mechanism is built-in, with a "data reader" for a perforated paper "music roll".  The data reader has a speed governor with a "Tempo" knob for operator control of the music speed.  Operating power is from foot pedals which pump a large vacuum bellows; the more vigorously that the pedals are pumped, the louder is the sound.

The sound of music rolls made for playing on a foot powered piano can be greatly enhanced by the additional nuances added by a skilled operator, who varies the foot-pump pressure and manipulates small hand-levers during the song in order to add accents and crescendos, etc.

"Themodist" and "Phonolist" are brand names of player pianos which have an additional simple mechanism to make sudden accents.  The special music rolls have tiny holes added at each side called "theme perforations" or "snakebites".  When these special rolls are skillfully foot-pumped they can produce very realistic musical performances.

                             - - - -

Player Pianos, Part 2: Electrically-powered pianos

These pianos with motor-powered pumps generally have few controls for the operator, and so the music roll contains extra data holes which control special "expression" devices in the piano.  An exception is the "Nickelodeon" or "Coin Piano" which has music arranged specifically for its characteristic (loud) sound.

Note that a pumper piano fitted with an electric pump is not in this category.  In fact, the whole thing should be in the trash!

(....More material needed.... and more-polite text! )

The "Expression Piano" is derived from the foot-pumped piano with the addition of an electric motor-powered pump and a few relatively simple devices to vary the hammer velocity.

   (....More material needed....)

The "Reproducing Piano" is ...

   (....More material to be written ....)

The "Solenoid Piano" is the newest system.  It uses a floppy disk for data storage, big electric solenoids to push the keys, and a modern mini-computer to interpret the data and control the hammer velocity.  It can also record the motion of the hammers or keys while played by a pianist, and then later reproduce the performance.  The loudness and music play-back speed may be varied slightly by operator control.  Since it's entirely automatic it's not as much fun as pumping the foot pedals of the "Pianola".

                             - - - -

Mechanical Music Device (definition):

  "A rank or ranks of mechanical tone generators, controlled
   by pre-recorded parallel binary data, which creates music."

Data Storage Media:

  "book":  Punched cardboard sheets, hinged and Z-folded
  "roll":  Punched paper roll
  "disc":  Punched metal disc
  "cylinder": pinned cylinder of metal
  "barrel": pinned cylinder of wood
  "chip":  semiconductor/computer
  "Midi"   computer disc file

Categories of Mech Music Devices, by type of tone generator:

Music Box (plucked pendant metal tine)

  Cylinder Music Box (cylinder)
  Disk Music Box (disc)

Player Organ (organ pipe and/or reed)

  Reed Organ (roll, barrel)
  Roller Organ (roll)
  Drehorgel Hurdy-gurdy (barrel, roll, chip)
  Fair-, Street-, Dance Hall- Organ (book, roll)
  Theater Organ (roll)
  Reed Organ (roll)
  Calliope (roll)
  Player Accordion (incl. "Tanzbar")

Player Piano (tight string, struck or plucked)

  Pumper Pianola (roll)
  Reproducing Piano (roll)
  Coin Piano, Orchestrion (roll)
  Automatic Banjo (roll)

Player Violin (bowed string)

  Leierkasten Hurdy-gurdy - hand-cranked antique
  Player Violin

Player Bells


                             - - - -

Common Types of Player Piano Systems

The system name is given, followed by the owning company. Below the system name is the "brand name" using the system. Thus PianoCorder is listed under Duo-Art, even though it is a solenoid device, because its split-stack system is the same as the pneumatic Duo-Art.

  Solenoid Systems, individual key control
    Disklavier (Yamaha)
    Stahnke (Kimball Boesendorfer)

  Reproducing Piano Systems, split stack:
    Ampico (American Piano Co.)
      Ampico A
      Ampico B, Nov. 1927
    Duo-Art (Aeolian Piano Co.)
      PianoCorder (solenoid)
      Welte Mignon (Firma M. Welte & Sohn, Freiburg)
      Welte Licensee

  Expression Piano Systems:
    Telektra (punched brass roll)

  Accenting Systems, split stack
    Themodist, Hupfeld-Phonola (?)

  Plain Ol' Pumper "Pianola"

(Message sent Fri 13 Dec 1996, 05:53:41 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  draft, Monograph, Pianos, Player

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