Gendering the Player Piano

Pratteola Player Piano (1910)

Pratteola Player Piano (1910) CSTM Collections

By Madelaine Morrison


This player piano reveals some fascinating ways in which music, technology, and domestic life overlapped at the turn of the twentieth century.  The “player” was a mechanism that effectively allowed the piano to play itself.  Pumping the foot pedals activated a series of bellows, which enabled a long strip of perforated paper to pass over a tracker bar.  The tracker bar was connected to pneumatic valves whose airflow, in turn, depressed the keys on the keyboard.  Players started to surface commercially in 1898.  They originally consisted of separate, floor length attachments but by 1905, manufacturers favoured internal mechanisms such as the instrument you see here.

Player pianos reconfigured the conversations people had about music making in crucial ways.  First, they were trumpeted as a great democratiser because they made music accessible to anyone, regardless of whether one had the time, the money, or the inclination for practicing and lessons. Player advertisements boasted about the mechanism’s ability to release one’s inner artist; far from replacing human creativity, the device enabled it by removing the barrier of technical skill. Player promoters concocted these explanations in order to soothe contemporaries’ anxieties over the strange notion of mechanical art.

Player pianos furthermore reconfigured the gendered expectations regarding music making in the home.  Traditionally, women were responsible for acquiring the musical skills necessary to entertain family and friends.  The player freed numerous wives and daughters from the drudgery of their unforgiving practices regime by offering instant access to a wide song catalogue.  The player also expanded the market for amateur pianos to an entirely new demographic.  Victorian piano manufacturers had long presumed that men were too busy earning a living to acquire musical skills.  By removing the need for technical competency, the player allowed even the harried businessman to take a turn at the keyboard after a long day’s work.  While women remained the moral guardians of the family’s musical tastes, piano playing had become culturally permissible for men as well.  By the late 1910s, amateur musicianship had shifted from a predominantly female domain to the universal right of every modern child.