Piano roll (1883 – 2008)

A piano roll is a music storage medium used to operate a player piano, piano player or reproducing piano consisting of a continuous roll of paper with perforations punched into it. The roll moves over a reading system known as a ‘tracker bar’ and the playing cycle for each musical note is triggered when a perforation crosses the bar and is read. Rolls play at a specific, marked speed, where for example, 70 signifies 7 feet of paper travel in one minute.

The first paper rolls were used commercially by Welte & Sons in their Orchestrions beginning in 1883. The popularity of piano rolls peaked between 1900 and 1927.

The majority of piano rolls play on three distinct musical scales. The 65-note (with a playing range of A-1 to C#7) format was introduced in 1896 in the USA specifically for piano music. In 1900 a USA format playing all 88-notes of the standard piano scale was introduced. In 1902 a German 72-note scale (F-1, G-1 to E7) was introduced. All of these scales were subject to being operated by piano rolls of varying dimensions. The 1909 Buffalo Convention of US manufacturers standardized the US industry to the 88-note scale and fixed the physical dimensions for that scale.

Piano rolls were in continuous mass production up to 2008, being replaced by MIDI files that accomplish digitally what piano rolls do mechanically.

Metronomic or arranged rolls are rolls produced by positioning the music slots without real-time input, whereas hand played rolls are created by capturing in real-time the hand-played performance of one or more pianists upon a piano connected to a recording machine. Reproducing rolls are the same as hand-played rolls but have additional control codes to operate the dynamic modifying systems of the specific brand of piano it is designed to be played back on.