The history of the Pianola

The Pianola: Instrumental In Music

We look at the history and background to the Pianola – and learn how it transformed the way we listened to music.

Before MP3 players and a long time before Amazon Echos, the Pianola revolutionised the way we enjoyed music.

If you were a music lover and wanted to listen to live music in the early 19th century, you’d have to attend an expensive concert or a private recital or, like many of the upper classes, learn to play an instrument yourself. Both of which meant much of the music of the era was reserved for the cultural elite.

Street pianos pulled by horses

Historical Street Piano

For the more musically ‘illiterate’, there were street side barrel organs and street pianos, but typically these were large, cumbersome boxes on wheels, often pulled by a horse. To play a different tune, the heavy barrels had to be awkwardly unloaded and loaded, and the music was limited by a number of pre-set chords, regurgitating everything from Chopin to Knees up Mother Brown with the same tinny tone.

The invention of pneumatics changed all this. Air was used to strike the piano strings and this made it possible for thin paper to be used to play and store music. American inventor Edwin Scott Votey was the first to see the possibilities of this paper performance and set about working on a new music player in his home workshop in Detroit in 1896, which worked with perforated rolls and a foot pedal.

His piano-sized cabinet, which nestled next to the piano keyboard so its wooden fingers could tap the keys, was the world’s first player piano or ‘Pianola’ – a name that stuck, despite the numerous ‘reincarnations’ that followed. It earned Votey the title of “inventive genius of the automatic music industry” by the New York Times.

 

The Pianola brought music to the home

The Pianola allowed people to listen to music (often with a better sound quality than our modern day hi-fis) in the comfort of their own home. Press softly on the pedal and the music would be quiet, press firmly and the music would get louder. When it was in non-automatic mode, people could play the piano in the conventional way.

Leaps in perforated paper music also allowed the player to perform better quality music. Originally, a technician was needed to punch holes in the paper after it has been marked with the score, but later, special recording pianos allowed them to perforate as the music was made, allowing for tempo and phrasing to be built in. Some consider this piano ‘software’ as the forerunner to the first punch cards and programs for early computers.

Even contemporary composers like Stravinsky got in on the act, penning special compositions for the Pianola that couldn’t ordinarily be played by human hands. With the words of the song printed on many rolls, people could gather around the Pianola and sing together too. In many ways, the Pianola was the world’s first interactive music player and it opened up a whole host of musical opportunities.

In the Pianola heyday of the 1920s, 450 different piano makers started installing player mechanisms into their instruments and, by the 1930s, almost one in every five families owned a Pianola, bringing different styles of music to a much wider section of society.

Old Fashioned Pianola

The vinyl of the piano world

But like so many mushrooming trends after a mass peak in popularity, the Pianola quickly began to fall out of favour. And, for the next three decades, it almost disappeared, as the novelty wore off, and the zeitgeist moved on to new and more exciting things.

A nostalgic resurgence in the 1960s – much as we see with vinyl today – ensured that there are still Pianola collections in existence; like vintage cars, prized by their owners and maintained for the pleasure of future generations.

Oh, how far we’ve come since then! Today, the self-playing piano we design and build in our Cambridge workshop is a hybrid of the traditional acoustic piano, the Pianola and 21st-century technology.

The Pianola on acid

Combining your iPod music list, your favourite songs and artists, and the sonorous beauty of real live piano, the self-playing piano provides the best of all worlds. Indistinguishable from a live concert pianist, each note is reproduced with 100% accuracy, delivering the nuance and quality of an actual person playing just as smooth, precise and enigmatic.

Revitalising the traditional piano market, the reinvented self-playing piano is the Pianola on acid. Perfectly attuned to a digital society, where we’ve lost many of those analogue pleasures in life, yet where we still crave real experiences (so long as they’re Instagrammable)—all our self-playing pianos are customisable too.

Famous versions have included an orange upright for Claudia Schiffer and a neon pink Coral Piano customized by designer Dio Davies – the pianos are available in any colour or finish, including acrylic, crystal, liquid metal, mirror, wood, exotic veneer and fabric.

Self-playing pianos like Edelweiss offer an unmistakable experience, delighting a new generation of music lovers, bringing people together through music and self-expression.

 

To find out more, or to play, listen and view an Edelweiss piano for yourself, get in touch or visit our exclusive showroom in Harrods.