Piano rolls are one of America’s oldest playable media formats dating back to the turn of the century. While the player pianos that perform the rolls are useable indefinitely with simple restoration, many of those piano rolls are deteriorating into obscurity. Many important figures recorded on piano roll, including many percussion ensembles. Rolls capture the performances of important figures like George Gershwin, Edward Grieg, and Thomas “Fats” Waller, but they also recorded the performances of vaguely known figures, who’s performances exist only on roll. It is of equal, if not greater importance, to archive the performances of these unknown artists. This website aims to serve only one main purpose; to provide students, teachers, and music enthusiasts valuable resources to musical content that is otherwise unavailable.
Throughout this site, you’ll find resources to learn more about piano rolls, an overview of my archival process, and of course, access to historically important piano roll performances in midi format.
Player piano rolls represent a media format that was the height of entertainment from 1910-1930 before Radio overtook the player piano in popularity. The piano was seen as a luxury item that was a necessity in everyone’s home. However, because not all those wanting pianos could actually play the piano, the player piano served as a means for the average person to enjoy the popular music of the day. Because of recorded sound’s initial fidelity issues, the player piano was thought by many recording artists to be the best method to record their performances. A listener could simply play the roll and it was as if the performer was there in their very home.
Recorded sound suffers from degradation in sound quality over decades, but a piano roll will sound the same as the day it was punched. Piano rolls are not free from defect however. Many “budget” brands of music roll issued outstanding recordings of artists on economical paper that was not designed to last. Roll brands such as Atlas, Paramount, Supertone, International, and Standard all could be categorized as having deficient paper. Depending on the acid content of these rolls, some are so brittle today that they can literally explode and tear if mishandled. It is because of paper degradation that some remaining rolls by these brands are damaged either while being played on a piano or from improper handling. The picture below illustrates why it is so important to archive as many of these rolls now before they all suffer the same fate.
One of the nice things about player piano rolls is that they can be acquired for cheap. A quick look on eBay finds that rolls go for about $.50 or less in large lots on the average. Occasionally rolls will be worth a lot, but it just depends on which collector is needing which roll. Because so many different artists recorded on piano roll, the same song can sound completely different on two brands of roll. Finding great performances on rolls is one of the thrills of collecting.
Music rolls are one of my personal favorite forms of music. When you play a player piano roll on a real piano, you’re able to inflect tone, subtlety, volume changes, and basically make your own performance. As a musician myself, this is as close as it comes to playing the piece yourself. It is this magic quality that needs to be preserved by scanning these rolls, to make it so that they can be re-cut and continued to be enjoyed on restorable player pianos. I hope you enjoy your visit to this site, and hopefully by listening to some of these files, you’ll catch the Piano Roll bug like I did.