Player piano rolls have been around since before the turn of the 20th century (1890s).
The Aeolian Corporation of New York manufactured the Pianola, a self-playing piano or a player piano which was its height until the 1930s Great Depression. Many homes preferred the Pianola as there was no need for a person to actually know how to play the piano in order to “play” the piano music rolls. The Pianola was a trademark but its name became generic for a piano player.
The Aeolian Company persisted to make player pianos until the 1980s so it was surprising that there was still a demand for such antique player piano rolls.
Though the production of new player instruments has stopped, there is still a great number of models gracing American homes today thus used player piano music rolls are still a sought after commodity.
A complete listing shows that there are more the 970 brands and makers in the United States alone. You can just imagine that there is indeed a great number of vintage and newer versions of this type of “entertainment” that are capable to play the old piano roll blues.
Piano roll production at QRS Music video demonstration
One of the leaders in the production of player piano rolls was QRS Music. The company started producing piano rolls in 1900 when its founder Melville Clark, maker of Story and Clark pianos, developed the player music piano. The market for piano players back then was huge that by 1927, there were more than 10 million QRS piano rolls sold.
The Great Depression brought poverty to the American public. Very few could afford to splurge on a player model. It was also the time when more affordable radios became available to the public that by the end of the 1930s, the production stopped.
Needless to say, there were still plenty of homes that have antique musical items that the demand for player piano music rolls continued. In the 1950s, when the American economy improved after WW II, the production of rolls was revived for people started to restore their old player pianos.
In the 1960s there was such awareness for the restoration that Story and Clark Pianos reinvigorated the production of player pianos while the Aeolian Piano Company revived their Pianola.
Technology made the re-production easier. However, technology also made the player piano obsolete and more of a piece of instrument to be preserved for its historical value.
QRS still manufacture music rolls today. Its main website offers new and old music rolls. There are also online music sheet stores that sell QRS rolls and other brands of player rolls. To date, the company has more than 45,000 music player rolls.
There are different types of music rolls. Some rolls were designed for player pianos while some were for expression pianos and reproducing pianos. There was also a player piano roll type that was made for band organs, player organs, orchestrations, for nickelodeons and for other roll-operated musical instruments.
When buying music rolls it is best to know what type of mechanism your player employs for the right type of music rolls. Most rolls will play in 88-note, 64-note, Pianola, expression and reproducing pianos.
The Aeolian Pianola (64-note) can accommodate the notes from a standard 88-note music roll. A standard 88-note piano player roll was a width of 11 ¼ inches and that the space between the right and left chucks (empty of roll) is 11 ½ inches. Note spacing in a regular 88-note roll sheet is 9 holes per inch.
Philip Legg plays a roll of "Maple Leaf Rag"
It would be hard to put an actual price on the value of antique piano roll as it depends on the condition of the roll, the brand and the artists who “recorded” the music. When selling or buying antique piano rolls check out brands of the music roll and know an estimated age of the music roll.
Check out the color of the box and its condition. Is the piano player roll in its original box? Does it have its original label? Does the box stand on itself? Check the condition of the roll's edges and see if the roll has end tabs.
Player piano roll's defects are not that transparent. It is best to unroll the music roll and check the edge of the paper. It should look crisp and clean and not frayed and ragged.
To do this, when the tab is over the top of the roll, the left flange will twist off. Remove it and check the edge. Reverse the wind then tilt the right edge while the left flange is still removes. Check the right edge. If both edges are alright, then the roll is alright for value appraisal.
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