What is a Player Piano?

Have you ever listened to a pianist and thought to yourself “I wish I could play like that”? With a player piano you can play like that. It allows anyone to be a musician without first learning the complex technical skill of playing the piano. By automating the task of operating the piano keys, it frees the player pianist to concentrate on producing music. Listen to the msuic video below to hear an example of what can be achieved via the player piano.

A player piano starts with an ordinary piano. Inside the piano’s case is an extra mechanism, the player. The player mechanism reads a roll of paper with holes perforated in it, and when a hole is read it operates a finger to play the piano mechanism. It can control the piano action with almost the same sensitivity as a pianist playing the piano keys. How it does this is be described in the history page.

Each player pianist will operate the player mechanism differently, according to their own musical tastes. Because the player piano responds precisely to the player pianist’s controls, each performance is therefore different. In other words, the player piano is a musical instrument in its own right.

Although often thought of as a ‘honky-tonk’ hammering out ragtime music, the player piano is capable of much else, right up to being soloist with a full symphony orchestra. In fact, the player piano can do almost anything a conventional piano can, as well as some things no pianist could ever manage.

Player pianos were first marketed in the late 1890s. Mechanical music had been available for many years before this (in such devices as the clockwork barrel piano). These early instruments offer no real dynamic or tempo control, and genuinely provide mechanical music. After being switched on they work with no further intervention. Find out more about how to operate a Player Piano.

The player piano is quite different. It is truly ‘interactive’ in modern-day terminology in that the player pianist hears and adapts the performance in real time, and it is provided with all the controls essential for producing music. This adaptability, in the eyes of its enthusiasts, raises the instrument out of the ordinary run of ‘mechanical music’.



Music for the player piano is boundless. The player, unlike a human, has no limit on the amount of notes it can play. It will play whatever is on the roll. It is not limited to, say, 16-note polyphony unlike modern electric keyboards and the like. Solos, duets, trios, music for two pianos, music arranged from an orchestral score and music composed specifically for the player piano are all possible.

Many well-known composers have taken advantage of this fact and arranged music specially for the player piano. Percy Grainger believed greatly in the players ability to produce music beyond the scope of normal hand performance and arranged a verison of his “Shepherds Hey” for the pianola. Stravinsky also produced similar player-only versions of his compositions. More recently the late Conlon Nancorrow’s virtual entire repertoire consisted of items composed direct onto piano roll with no consideration given to human playing limitations.

These oddities aside most of the music on roll consists of, well….the rest of music generally. Everything from classics to modern day pop tunes. If it’s a tune playable on a keyboard there’s no reason why it can’t go onto a roll.