As phonograph enthusiasts know, the first phonographic recordings were not pressed onto wax but onto tin foil (although one early experimenter used lead; his recording can still be played today). Tin foil was not, however, such a durable medium. Earlier recordings on paper have lasted just as well, if not better. Sheet music was a huge commodity in the nineteenth century (and one that was widely pirated internationally, although copyrights on sheet music and live performance applied after 1831), but it wasn’t so much recorded as transcribed. But the invention of automatic music, particularly the player piano, meant that an individual performer’s work could be recorded, duplicated, and played in your parlor or at the local saloon almost as it had sounded in the concert hall. The first player piano — the pianolas — was invented in 1895 in Detroit. A complex device, the pianola was operated by a foot press much like an old sewing machine’s, and had a tempo control lever as well as levers to replace the sustain and soft pedals, allowing the performer some creativity. However, it could not distinguish between loud notes and soft ones, nor pianola rolls record an actual pianist’s session (the rolls were largely created by transcribing sheet music), but it was a start. A few years later, the reproducing piano was invented; the player piano could now record a performance that could then be edited, duplicated, and shipped around the country. One 1909 copyright law later (a judge having found in 1908 that player piano rolls and phonograph records, being non-human-readable, were not protected by copyright law), and an industry was ready to explode.

The piano was the great symbol of middle class life; the player piano meant that even if you weren’t a great musician, you could still appreciate the rarefied sounds of piano music at home. (It was another step towards the professionalization of music.) The great expense of the reproducing piano, however, meant that only the very rich could afford them; the pianolas were swept aside in the 1920s and afterwards, as the phonograph became the medium for recorded music.

Some people still collect and restore automatic music instruments. Jelly Roll Morton’s player piano recordings have been recreated in an attempt to discern how the father of jazz really played. Conlon Nancarrow, an American-born composer who spent much of his adult life living in Mexico City, composed almost exclusively for the player piano; having fled to Mexico out of fear that his membership in the Communist Party would cause problems, Nancarrow was underwhelmed by the quality of local musicians and turned to mechanical players. A number of Nancarrow’s compositions were never intended to be played or even playable by humans, and incorporate impossibly fast rhythms or chords that are too large for one person to play; a few Real Audio and MP3 snippets are available on the web. George Antheil’s original 1923 score for the Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Dudley Murphy animated film Ballet mécanique, using sixteen synchronized pianolas, has been performed. A Seattle artist and composer, Trimpin, has arranged Nancarrow’ work for other instruments, including computer-controlled mallets striking clogs.

Like many dead media, the player piano roll is not yet entirely forgotten. Reproducing what are essentially giant punchcards is cheap. Paper is relatively durable. A dedicated, mechanically inclined fan base and the historical interest of many rolls keep the pianola from vanishing for now. Stravinsky composed for the pianola, but Mozart wrote for the glass harmonica, and that instrument is almost entirely forgotten today. Perhaps, if nothing else, the plinkity-plonk of the pianola in the Western will keep the memories alive, until the Western is abandoned as well, the rolls are stored in museums and attics, and Edwin Votey‘s invention fades, at last, to silence.