Player Pianos Whose Keys Don't Move
by Craig Brougher

This is sort-of fun to talk about. Yes, there were lots of player pianos whose keys were designed to remain stationary while the upright player piano played a roll. (How much fun is that?) But then, who else but the British would have done it? Right you are! It WAS the Brits.

Why did they do it this way? Well, contrary to popular opinion, it was not, according to the song, “people just liked it better that way.” Instead, people largely liked it less. Of course, that doesn’t matter to a company which deemed it “crass” to allow the keys to track the action. It was “improper” for the keys to work while the piano played automatically. But...why?

Well, as the stuffy-sided explanation goes, a player piano apparently should not be there to amuse children, intrigue the deaf, OR mock the feeble-minded. I guess that means, “We are all business, and this is an industrial piece of equipment, NOT an instrument of entertainment value.” Hmm. No wonder their sales per prospective customer was about 1/3rd of that in America at the same period of time (if my estimate is correct). But be that as it may, they had a captive audience, didn’t they? If you were a Brit and wanted this “all-business” sort of serious musical instrument that hid it’s capabilities by keeping a “stiff upper lip,”, then you either bought one or went without– unless you could afford the imports from America– which I understand at that time were few and far between in London.

The technical argument explanation is even funnier and it goes like this. “The inertia of weighted keys having to track the piano action as it plays slows the action down considerably, and is therefore detrimental to the top speed of the piano when played without key interference.(Of course, we all know how slow American players were, compared to British players? How gullible can one be?)

Key interference? Inertia? Speed of action? Oh, let’s try this on, for size. I think it should require at least one (1), and maybe two (2) paragraphs! This is heavy stuff.

In the first place, the time required for either a light weight or a heavy weight to fall an equal distance– is---- (drum roll, please)---- EQUAL! Yes, folks, since the days of Galileo at least, this has been the case! Now what about those pesky physical properties? Say, “Inertia?” Well, inertia is that property of a mass which, when at rest tends to remain at rest, and when in motion, tends to remain in motion. At least, that used to be the definition when I was in grade school. But later was changed a little when in motion, and called momentum. My college teacher said momentum is the first derivative. Momentum, then, is what they mean to say, I think. So, why doesn’t that fly? Because the whippen and sticker are moving away from the key, and not toward it. The action therefore doesn’t force the key down in front. It relieves the key from the rear. And as long as the key weights are not wrong and do not counter-weight the action, then such key has no effect, whatsoever! But ah-hah! What about the return? The whippen must weight the key back down. Yes, and it’s own weight does that statically, even without the momentive force of the hammer return. WITH the force of the hammer return, it’s far heavier, but– that doesn’t matter because it isn’t necessary anyway.

Sorry. It actually only took one (1) paragraph, and not two (2), as originally speculated. Now let’s get sensible here for a minute, and examine the advantages of letting the keys move.

If an English owner didn’t play the piano himself except for player rolls, the keys would never move, right? Of course. And pianos whose keys are never exercised tend to have stiff key action after years of inactivity for several reasons, including that the piano designer relied on the fact that key motion would keep the pins polished and clean. So, even though the owner himself never played by hand, the piano was ready to be played by hand as soon as a musician visited and noticed that he owned a piano.

The fact that we are not amused by keys falling as the piano plays simply indicates to me that such marketers were not musicians, nor had any empathy for one. As a child, I and tens of thousands of other children with the same musical bent watched the keys go down. Then we slowed down the music and watched more intently. And finally, we started picking out pieces on our own. After a number of years we learned to play the piano from the combination of sensual exercise both audibly and visually. Given only one sense, audible sounds, there was no way to learn to do it yourself. For instance, if you can give a child today a CD of a piano and he learns to play the piano by listening to the CD, then I am wrong, but I don’t think so, because there’s no way to see how it is done! Watching it happen isn’t simply “amusement.” It’s an education.

Another advantage of key motion is the very thing that turned these stuffy old boys off the idea to begin with. It “amused” children. Why, shame, shame! How dare we “amuse” children! And yet, guess who it is that are buying the next generation of player piano? And why? Because they remember the players whose keys played and filled the house with music. (How utterly disgusting, vulgar, sensual, and coarse!)

Enough of this. What we need to know, today, is that these soulless half-a-player imitations can easily be fixed right, to (dare we say?) “Amuse” the next generation! I know, I know. “Not Original.” So my suggestion is this: Put one of those “originals” in a museum somewhere, so we don’t forget how inane the original idea was, and then correct the rest of them to amuse children! With player pianos, it is not the “originality” that’s as valuable as the educational value, the feeling of live music being performed as you watch the keys drop, and a child’s amusement. It’s called “intrinsic” value, and that is ten-thousand times more important than what you can sell it for.

Oh– regarding “fixing” the problem, there is only one “right way” of doing it. You re-balance the keys to drop. When you tie the key to the sticker or whippen, you slow the action down, for all the same principles given above. Now is not the time to compromise, but to correct the problem by undoing the mistake.

By the way, if you still don’t like to see the keys going down, in almost all American uprights, there was a lever under the keybed which locked the keys from moving. Use that, and be satisfied. Oh, by the way– does your player now perform even faster because the keys aren’t moving? No? Hmm. I wonder why? Why not research that out? Now, the rest of us– lets have some fun.

Craig Brougher

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This page was last revised on March 14, 2019

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