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Music In The Air

Spring 1994 | Volume 9 |  Issue 4

“That’s ‘Hark the Herald,’” says Robert Berkman, glancing at blank slotted paper emerging from a perforating machine made around 1915. “Those are the final chords.” The machine has been punching forty layers of paper at once, making player-piano rolls the way it made them during World War I.

Two feet and seventy years away sits a personal computer. A cable from it branches into a sprawl of wires feeding to solenoids that drive about a hundred tiny electro-pneumatic valves. They run the perforator’s ancient pneumatic system.

The place is QRS Music Rolls, Inc., of Buffalo, New York, the world’s leading piano-roll manufacturer for almost this whole century. The perforator is one of four that stamp out 200,000 piano rolls a year, serving customers who still prefer the home-entertainment system of the 1920s. Berkman, in his late thirties, is the chief operating officer. “Everything we do,” he says, “recording new music, redoing old music, and manufacturing the rolls, uses both the old equipment and computers. The computer is a great tool.”

One pictures Jelly Roll Morton or Fats Waller sitting at a piano and having his playing automatically transcribed for piano roll, but it didn’t usually happen that way. When it did, though, it was on a piano upstairs that QRS still owns and occasionally uses. The marking piano was built in 1912 —a baby grand with a riot of black air hoses snaking out from under it to a three-foot-high wooden cabinet in which tiny bellows drive wires that mark the paper passing through.

“We used it last year for a roll of New Age Christmas music,” Berkman says, sitting down at it. He flips a switch to set the paper rolling in the cabinet, and then he plays a few notes, and the wires in the cabinet jump and clatter like an old telephone relay board. “The basic concept of a player piano is pretty simple,” he explains. “The holes in the paper allow atmospheric pressure to run down to valves connecting to pneumatic mechanisms that drive the keys. My high school physics teacher would faint if I called it suction, but it’s suction. The marking piano essentially does the same thing in reverse.”

The marking piano wasn’t used at all for several decades after 1931. “They were doctoring the rolls so much it ended up being simpler to skip live recording. Editing was hard. Performers make mistakes you have to fix, and there are always things you want to improve. The biggest bugaboo was the sustain pedal. A player piano can only depress the pedal all the way. If you use a performer’s pedaling, it will overpedal terribly.”

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