Pianolas: what they are and how they differ to the 'reproducing piano'

All you need to know about the pianola, which was hugely popular in the early 20th century

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Published: September 2, 2022 at 9:00 am
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What is a pianola?

‘Pianola’ was the registered trade-name for the ‘player pianos’ made by the New York-based Aeolian Company. It became, albeit incorrectly, the generic term for any mechanically-operated piano that used piano rolls. From about 1900-1930 they were wildly popular.

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Pianola types

There are, basically, two distinct sorts of pianola. Both operate using the same principles: a paper roll, hand-punched with holes that correspond to the duration and pitch of the notes, unwinds by means of a machine powered by two foot treadles (or electricity). Air pressure supplied through bellows activates the hammers of the piano through the holes in the paper. There are ‘piano players’ or ‘push-ups’ – an independently-housed machine containing sets of pneumatically-controlled felt-covered levers that fit over the keys of any ordinary piano – and ‘player pianos’, where the mechanism is built into the piano. Interpretation of the music is entirely down to the ‘pianolist’.

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How did pianolas differ to the ‘reproducing piano’?

These are quite distinct from the ‘reproducing piano’ (another Aeolian copyright name) introduced in 1904. The rolls for these were ‘recorded’ on a specially equipped piano that could recognise all the expression, dynamics and tempos of a pianist’s performance. The interpretation relied on the play-back mechanism of the reproducing piano. Unlike pianolas, they were extremely expensive to own. Some cost more than the price of an average house, which is why there wasn’t much demand for music written for two reproducing pianos…

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