Example of a music roll. It is a recording dating from 1906, shortly after the invention that allowed pianists to record their playing on a music roll (1905). The earlier rolls were drawn out on paper and punched on that basis.
The composition? This is one of Edward Grieg’s Lyrische Stücke:‘Erotik’. Recorded by him in 1906, shortly before his death. Just in time to experience how the performance of pianists could be recorded. And just in time to let us listen to this great pianist playing his own work.
Thanks to the Aeolian Company, he had been introduced earlier to the miracle of the Pianola, which made it possible for everyone to listen to music without a musician playing, and even to‘play’ the music themselves. He had collaborated with Aeolian in 1902 or 1903 in preparing some‘arranged’ rolls of his music, with notes on the roll for dynamics, pedal and tempo changes, the‘metrostyle’ line.
In the spring of 1906, he made a concert tour to the major European music centres, and then also visited Hupfeld’s studios in Leipzig and Welte in Freiburg, where he made recordings.
After his visit to Hupfeld’s studio, he wrote in his diary:
”What this instrument is capable of is incredible. The pianola that used to impress me so much lags far behind in comparison. I am very much looking forward to listening to my pieces on this instrument.”
For a short explanation of the technical details of the roll, see the text below the image.
The details. Clearly visible are the holes, through which the entering air pressure sets membranes and valves in motion. Then, in a fraction of a second, small bellows will be emptied that strike the piano hammers, or, in the case of a‘Vorsetzer’ or piano player, move the mechanical fingers to the key.
Long notes were literally long openings in the earliest music rolls, but that made the rolls too fragile. It was soon found that a series of holes with small dams between them (chain perforation) worked better and produced the same result.
On the roll are instructions for the‘player’, who can adjust the tempo and, with more or less force on the pedals, quickly vary the air pressure and thus influence the dynamics. The grey dotted line running across the paper, from left to right and back, gives a clue to the dynamics. The more the line goes to the right, the more intense or louder the‘piano player’ should play. On many rolls there are also dynamic signs such as pp, p, mf, f and ff.
On the left, the use of the‘forte pedal’ is indicated. You cannot operate this pedal with your foot when operating the Pianola mechanism, because the pedals of the wind supply are in front of it. Therefore, there is a knee lever, or a finger-operated button near the keys. In later fully automatic systems, the pedal has its own track of holes for operation.
The red line here is the dividing line between bass and treble, which one can adjust separately. A fluctuating red line (the ‘Metrostyle’ line) appears on early rolls from manufacturer Aeolian. This indicates intended changes in tempo. The player has a lever to adjust the speed.
In the paper, you can see (upside down) the watermark: Phonola, the brand name of German manufacturer Hupfeld.