Pianola, history and types

On these pages we would like to offer you a small insight into the interesting history of the pianolas. There are miraculous books and websites listed at "Readable stuff". Reading their very extensive and detailed information is rewarding to get to know more about this interesting history.

The Pianola name

The name "Pianola" is actually a product name for the self-playing mechanism, built in ~1895 by Edwin Votey and very successfully marketed worldwide by the Aeolian Company, New York, after 1897. This product name survived as a generic name for self-playing (grand) pianos, even more so than the product name "Phonola" that was introduced by Hupfeld in 1902.

Many manufacturers called their own instruments subsequently "Pianola grand" or "Pianola piano", so that the Aeolian Company pointed out many times that the real Pianola came from its house. The suffix of the Pianola or Phonola was deliberately meant to have a feminine character.


Pianola Phonola Playola Ibachiola

Other manufacturers had their own neologisms registered as trademarks of their self-playing instruments - often in connection with the manufacturer's name - for example Pleyela, Ibachiola, Orphobella, Phonobella, Pianella, Playola, Symphoniola, etc. -, but none of them became as widespread as Edwin Votey's coinage "Pianola".


Mechanical piano

The epithet "mechanical piano" was promoted by Hupfeld in the Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau as early as 1893. A pressboard roll was moved by means of a crank that created the sounds in the piano by scanning. The faster the crank was moved, the louder and faster was the music played. Even though the mechanical conversion was already impressive, the sound remained very mechanical and little comparable to natural piano playing.


Electrical piano

The term “Elektrisches Klavier”, electric piano, is also popular in the German-speaking area - although most self-playing pianos were played without electric motor, only on pedals. And these instruments are "self-playing" only if they are real electrically driven pianos - otherwise you still need the pianolist to reproduce music from the music roll, using the pedals and levers of the pianola.


Aeolian Pianola and Hupfeld Phonola

Although there were different self-playing piano mechanisms much earlier, in the 19th century, e. g. in France, Germany and the USA, the certainly decisive breakthrough of the pianola was achieved by the American Aeolian Company - and by Hupfeld in Germany shortly after, with the Phonola. Hupfeld utilized the possibilities of advertisement and contemporary media extensively, placing advertisements of the Phonola that would straightly target the Pianola consistently and at the most prominent places, not only in the "Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau".


Mechanical Music

The history of the self-playing or 'mechanical musical instruments' tracks back for many centuries. Before the self-playing pianos were the music boxes that chiefly brought mechanical music into mostly well-to-do houses. The mixture of inventiveness, the appeal of technology and joy of music always inspired the creation of so many and diversified mechanical instruments. The accompanying announcement from the Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau (vol. 1, 1880) advertizes "orchestrionettes", for example.


Heydays of the Pianola

These self-playing (grand) pianos had their heydays in the late 19th and early 20th century, when there were no satisfactory sound carriers or broadcasters yet to enjoy music at your own home, in cafés, bars or restaurants, while music was still a self-evident part of cultural family life. The great success of the pianolas in the time from 1895 to 1935 - the annual sales were culminating shortly before WWI - , was partially due to the fact that piano music had developed into the dominating kind of music in the households, belonging into every "respectable house" - even where great piano playing talents were absent. The pianolas permitted to entertain sophisticated piano music. At the same time, sociable life went heavily into numerous cafés and dance bars, this was the reason why self-playing pianos were combined with additional instruments like drums, flutes etc. and very successfully sold as "orchestrions". True technological wonderworks were born and widely spread - to the chagrin of many small orchestras.


Piano roll business

The piano traders found a rewarding follow-up trade in the continuous sale of piano rolls. The most recent titles were promoted: current tunes, marches, pop songs and new recordings of the most popular classical titles. An average collection of a pianola owner included approx. 50-70 titles. Not only the manufacturers of the pianolas focused on this interesting business, but other companies did, too. Piano rolls were even available in libraries for a lending fee. Not only new titles were acquired but also replacements for piano rolls that had been so often played that they could not be reliably used any more.


Piano rolls scripted versus handplayed

Basically, there were two different philosophies of pianola and rolls - the arranged rolls that only recorded the melody on the piano rolls while accentuation and tempo were left to the pianola player; the other was the reproducing rolls that were recordings of a pianist's play and could be played back 1:1. An intermediate solution were the "artist's rolls" that recorded the play of a pianist but still left accentuation and tempo to the pianola player.


Rise and collapse of pianola business

The rise of these pianolas was as fast as their era collapsed. It would still take long until the record achieved a quality which allowed to enjoy music without annoying noise, but then these phonographs spread in great number into the well-to-do households that till then had preferred pianolas. The broadcasting operation became very popular in the mid-1920s, too, and displaced the pianolas even faster. Resourceful manufacturers tried to counter this trend by offering pianolas with built-in phonographs and/or radios - but such attempts to survive failed. The pianola industry recovered only badly from WWI - and, further considerably damaged by the economic crisis in the late 1920s, ultimately collapsed in the early 1930s. L. Hupfeld AG, once the largest manufacturer of mechanical musical instruments in the world with about 2000 employees, had to cease production almost completely in 1934.


Pianola still around

Today, modern CD- and computer-based self-playing mechanisms are offered by manufacturers in (grand) pianos - however, they are not sold on a large scale. Yamaha has the Pianodisc system, Bösendorfer the CEUS system and Steinway & Sons the Spririo - just to name some. Beside these there are systems like Pianomation by QRS to be added into existing pianos.

Many hundreds of thousands of self-playing (grand) pianos and millions of piano rolls were produced from 1900-1930, and a few copies still exist, in spite of more than 100 years and historical confusion having passed. Museums and passionate collectors own most of these unusual self-playing instruments now. There is, fortunately, an increasing number of people who are attracted again by the charm of almost 100 years old mechanical wonderworks and who are playing music on a pianola. And then as now, this music-making may provoke great enthusiasm and joy of everybody who takes part - or, if misapplied, some less excited participants, as the adjacent newspaper image from approx. 1910 demonstrates.