Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, but many years passed before it began to emerge as a home entertainment device. Edison's refusal to see it in this light (as opposed to his original conception of it as an office dictating machine) began to erode as competing inventors and entrepreneurs identified it as a new and profitable industry waiting to be born. Enormous systems had to be worked out first - the design and manufacture of reliable, popularly-priced phonographs; the materials and means to mass produce records; and most of all, the great pop culture complex had to grow up, eventually encompassing songwriters, music publishers, theatre owners, celebrity performers of all types, wholesalers, retailers, publicists - not to mention the later addition of Hollywood, radio, television, and the Internet. Such complexes do not spring into being fully formed.
Meanwhile, the mechanical piano had been developing since the late 1860's. At that time owning a piano was a hallmark of American middle-class respectability and remained so well into the 20th century. To use it, however, meant that someone in the home had to learn to play it. The usual someone was a daughter, piano playing being considered largely a "female accomplishment" imposed upon young ladies without regard to their level of innate musical talent. It might be guessed that innate musical talent was as scarce then as now, and that a ready market existed for a mechanical piano player.
The most successful
of these piano players was the Pianola, introduced in 1898. Invented by
Edwin S. Votey and brilliantly marketed by the Aeolian Company, the Pianola
was already a world-wide phenomenon by the time of the Pan. Soon enough
a huge library of music rolls was available, listing everything from ragtime
to Chopin. The player piano industry also tapped into and contributed
to the pop culture complex, including contacts with songwriters, publishers,
pianists, - and even the phonograph record companies. The QRS Music Roll
Co. (founded 1900) issued special rolls to be played along with favorite
By 1901, then, both the phonograph and the player piano were in their ascendency. The phonograph, though it has had fallow periods, has been continuously upgraded technologically and flourishes today as the modern CD player. Player piano sales, on the other hand, began to slide after 1923 and virtually came to a halt in 1931. Though there was a nostalgia-driven revival in the 1960's and 70's, that too has subsided to a trickle. Why is this so?
Of course, several
reasons seem self-evident. The rise of free entertainment on radio and
the onset of the Great Depression clearly sent the player piano hurtling
toward oblivion. Compared to any phonograph of the time (not to mention
the modern CD player), the player piano was much more expensive and far
less portable. The piano itself began to slip from its place of honor
in the home, to the point that any keyboard in the home today is likely
to be a versatile electronic one interfaced to a computer. And pop music,
with its increasingly multi-layered sounds and sonic effects, became less
and less suitable for piano adaptation.
While this "selling point" intrigued many would-be pianists in 1901 and continues to interest a tiny band of devotees, the general public ultimately found it too taxing. The player piano's biggest years began in 1916 when, karaoke-like, the song lyrics began to be printed on well-arranged rolls that left little for the public to do but pump the pedals and sing along. Singing along with a player piano is a participatory aspect which requires no skill, just camaraderie and the lack of self-consciousness it inspires. Yet even this level of participation --- gathering around the player piano for a sing-along --- is a type of fun foreign to people who were becoming used to receiving their musical entertainment passively.
transit gloria pianola!
Robert J. Berkman is Chief Operating Officer of QRS Music Technologies, Inc., Buffalo, N.Y.