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MMD > Archives > September 2009 > 2009.09.17 > 05Prev  Next

Paper Roll vs. Computer Disk Player Pianos
By John A. Tuttle

Hi All,  Here's my 'Johnny Come Lately' contribution -- pun intended...
The posts I've read on this topic typically deal with performance
capabilities and limitations.  What's missing?

The player piano was the first karaoke [sing-along] machine.  Why this
isn't even mentioned at Wikipedia amazes me.  I can only guess that
it's because the word wasn't invented until 1971.  Before then, player
pianos were called many things: self-playing pianos, entertainment
centers, pianola, and the list goes on.  But they all fall short of
the true magic that enticed and thrilled generation after generation of
music lovers.  I say music lovers instead of piano music lovers because
of the 'karaoke' aspect of the paper music roll with the words printed
on the side.

Were it not for word rolls, it seem highly likely that player pianos
would have died almost as soon as the radio came into being.  Why pay
hundreds or thousands of dollars for an instrument that merely plays
piano music?  It makes no sense except to those who truly love piano
music in its purest form.  Even then, I've had a superb stereo audio
system since the mid 1960's that rivals most real pianos.  In fact,
I used that system some years back to listen to Wayne Stahnke's
excellent Rachmaninoff CD, "A Window In Time".  It was, and still is
very moving.  (My current musical 'love interest' is the Klavins Model

(An interesting side note: Even the digital player system makers found
that a system that merely played the piano was not a big enough draw to
the public.  So, they added musical accompaniment.  But that wasn't
enough either.  So, they added vocals.  That wasn't enough.  So, they
added Sync-Along.  Mind you, I don't even know what Sync-Along is, but
it's there.  What's next?  Will it fry an egg for me? ... Just being

However, having been in the homes of thousands of player piano
owners, I fully realize and accept that the allure of the regular
88-note player piano is standing around the instrument with friends
and family and singing.  Customers tell me that they often play
a roll and sing out loud to ease the tension of the day.  And what
captures their attention isn't so much the music as it is the fact
that the words are right there, begging to be sung.  What's even more
intriguing is that they are written in a manner which is unfamiliar
to the normal way most people read.  It's not right-to-left or
left-to-right, but bottom-to top.

There's also the mystique of seeing the tiny holes in the roll as
they instruct the piano which notes to play.  Even the novice
'reader' can see what's coming just before it gets there, and there's
an anticipation of 'what is to come' that is missing with the vast
majority of digital players.

When you add these two factors together -- word rolls plus seeing
the patterns that make the music -- it's no wonder to me that these
antiquated mechanical musical instruments have survived for more than
100 years in their original form.  And, they will continue to survive
as long as there are people to repair them and music rolls to play on

In closing, it's no surprise that digital players were invented.  Since
their beginning, acoustic pianos have fascinated and been a source of
entertainment for billions of people worldwide.  The digital player
piano, most simply put, is filling a gap in the public's desire to
listen to a real piano.  But the difference between the average pneumatic
player piano owner and the digital player piano owner seem, to me, to
be light years apart with regards to their love of the music and the

John A Tuttle
Brick, NJ, USA

P.S.: In the past two days I worked on a digital player and an old and
rather worn pneumatic player.  The digital unit was shiny and new, and
looked 'un-used'.  The pneumatic unit was well worn.  The home where
the digital unit is located is a mansion -- no exaggeration!  The home
where the old upright is located is strictly middle class.  The owners
are about the same age.

Their comments about the instruments could not have been more different
or more telling.  The owner of the pneumatic player raved about how the
small children pumped the pedals for hour after hour as the family sang
along to old familiar tunes.  The owner of the digital unit commented
that 'it only gets used when we have a party -- for background music'.
I think that typifies the difference between the two types of player
pianos and their owners.

(Message sent Thu 17 Sep 2009, 19:22:50 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Computer, Disk, Paper, Pianos, Player, Roll, vs

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