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Early Synthesizers, Keyboard and Performance Instruments

The Player Piano and Reproducing Piano

The Player Piano (820394)* and Reproducing Piano (690699) were popular in homes and entertainment establishments. They used electric motors with rolls of paper in which holes were punched to control the piano's keyboard. When a hole passed the sensing mechanism the corresponding key of the piano was depressed. Each roll contained the information needed for one piece of music. Well-known musicians recorded their performances on these instruments and made their piano rolls available for sale. Thus these instruments were among the first recording devices. Although most piano rolls contained versions of popular songs, the instrument has also been used to facilitate original compositions in which the piano plays more notes, and faster, than would be possible for human players. The best known composer to use the player piano in this way is Conlon Nancarrow.

Heintzman Player Piano (820394) with details of mechanisms (CSTM)

The player piano was not electronic, however. It simply controlled the action of a standard acoustic piano mechanism. The sound was caused by the vibration of the piano strings, producing sound waves that travelled through the air to the ears of the listeners. When sound is generated electronically, similar sound waves are produced by vibrations of the cones within loud speakers, driven by electric currents. The current can come from a radio receiver, a playback device such as a CD player, or from an electronic music instrument.

Knabe Reproducing Piano and its roll sensor bar (690699) (CSTM)

*NOTE TO READERS: the numbers in brackets are the accession numbers of artifacts held by the Museum.