What Is A Piano Roll?

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Playing the piano is an art form. It can be exciting, expressive, interesting, and emotional. When it comes to playing the piano, practice typically makes perfect, and there are so many different pianos to choose from, from grand pianos to upright pianos.

Roll piano

But, what you may not have heard about is the player piano, which operates with a piano roll. So, what is a piano roll, how does it work and how do we use it?

What Is A Player Piano?

A player piano, which is also known as a pianola, is a type of self-playing piano that has a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that works to operate the piano via the piano action through programmed music and movements to mimic the sound and movement of a pianist playing the piano.

The player piano rose to popularity and was an exciting addition to the home from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Sales of the player piano truly peaked around 1924, and then declined as phonograph recordings grew more popular.

The player piano operates with a type of piano roll with holes spaced to fit into the player piano, for various pieces of music to be played. So, what is a piano roll exactly?

Close up of roll piano roll

What Is A Piano Roll?

A piano roll is an old type of music storage device that was once used to operate player pianos. Similar to other music rolls, piano rolls are continuous rolls of paper with holes and perforations punched in to represent the notes and provide the piano with data.

As the piano roll ‘rolls over’, it moves towards a reading system known as a tracker bar that reads these holes and triggers the corresponding notes and keys by controlling the hammers and action of the piano. This is what controls the player piano, and makes it give the appearance of someone playing the piano and hitting the keys to make the sounds.

Piano rolls have been mass-manufactured as early as 1896, and were once widely popular, as people gathered around the player piano to see the novelty of it being played without a pianist. However, you could also play the player piano whilst it operates with a piano roll to harmonize with the melody or create a more resounding effect.

Most companies spent large sums of money creating thousands of piano rolls to add to their extensive repertoire and catalogs. These piano rolls consisted mainly of religious, classical or light music, but ragtime music was also a well-loved genre for piano rolls.

During the height of player piano popularity, piano rolls were designed with standard 65 note formats and 11 ¼ inch wide rolls spaced to 6 inches for compatibility across all makes and models of player pianos.

However, many manufacturers made their own piano rolls with incompatible sizes that only matched a few models of player pianos. This could also be why the player piano slowly dropped out of fashion.

Nowadays, you may struggle to find piano rolls as they are no longer mass manufactured like they once were. You may be able to find second-hand or antique piano rolls if you already have an antique or vintage player piano to utilize the piano roll.

Who Invented The Piano Roll?

Piano rolls have been used as early as the 1880s. Piano rolls were first commercially used by Welte & Sons during their orchestrations from 1883 onwards. These rolls were often made by a single performer, who created a rollography, much like a discography.

That being said, the piano roll is attributed to the pioneer Melville Clark, who introduced the world to two ideas, the full-scale piano roll that could play every note on the keyboard, and an internal player as a standard part of the player piano.

Why Use A Piano Roll?

A piano roll is basically the sheet music for a piano player. The player piano simply functions much like a music box, producing the music mechanically rather than needing to be played or operated. The roll is simply placed inside of the piano, and the pianist can operate the pedals to send air into the piano’s interior pneumatics.

As the piano roll unfurls and moves, air will pass through the tiny holes in the paper to activate the notes on the piano and play the song. The piano roll is essential to the player piano, as the piano simply ‘reads the roll’ in order to play the notes by itself without a pianist.

How Does A Piano Roll Work?

The vast majority of piano roles will play on three musical scales. The first is the 65 note scale ranging from A1 to C♯7.

The second was introduced in 1900 and played all 88 notes of the piano, from A0 to C8 and the third is a 72 note scale introduced in 1902. However, all of these scales needed to be operated by piano roles with varying sizes, specification, and dimensions, so there was no real industry standard at the time.


To summarize, playing the piano is a very exciting skill indeed, but did you know that a piano is actually able to play itself, as long as it is a player piano, and has a piano roll. A piano roll is simply like sheet music for a player piano.

The player piano is an interesting instrument that can operate without a pianist. Instead of actually being played, the piano ‘reads’ the piano roll, which is made up of perforations and holes that can be tracked so that the piano can respond and perform by itself.

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