The Player Piano and Musical Labor

PDF The Player Piano and Musical Labor Copyright Year 2022

Book author
  1. Dan Charnas

By the early 20th century the machine aesthetic was a well-established and dominant interest that fundamentally transformed musical performance and listening practices. While numerous scholars have examined this aesthetic in art and literature, musical compositions representing industrialized labor practices and the role of the machine in music remain largely unexplored. Moreover, in recounting the history of machines in musical recording and reproduction, scholars often tend to emphasize the phonograph, rather than player piano, despite the latter’s prominence within the newly established musical marketplace. Machines and their music influenced multiple areas of early 20th-century musical culture, from film scores to popular music and even the concert hall. But the opposite was also true: industrialized labor practices changed the musical marketplace and musical culture as a whole. As consumers accepted mechanical replacements for what previously required an active human laborer, ghostly, mechanical performers labored tirelessly in parlors, businesses, and even concert halls. Although the player piano failed to maintain a stronghold in the recorded music marketplace after 1930, the widespread acceptance of recording technologies as media for storing and enjoying music indicates a much more fundamental societal shift. This book explores that shift, examining the rise and fall of the player piano in early 20th-century society and connecting it to the digital technologies of today.


The cartoon shown in Figure 0.1 comes from John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” In it, two anthropomorphized phonographs and a push-up player piano with its large-toothed mouth agape advance toward the viewer while the piano roll trails behind in the wind. Sousa’s article critiques phonographs and player pianos alike, and he claims it is “simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling” (280). But the player piano did not rob concert pianists of their jobs. Instead, it provided incidental accompaniment to commercial establishments and an in-home supplement to concert performances, a source of domestic entertainment for middle-class families. Moreover, concert pianists and famous composers capitalized on the player piano by creating arranged rolls of orchestral works or reproducing piano-roll performances that could be sold nationwide. For example, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded for Ampico; Igor Stravinsky made rolls for the Pleyel Company in Paris and the Aeolian Company in London and composed his Étude pour Pianola specifically for the player piano; George Antheil composed Ballet Mécanique for 16 synchronized player pianos; Paul Hindemith, Ernst Toch, and Gerhart Münch all premiered works for mechanical piano at the 1926 Donaueschingen chamber music festival; and composers like Felix Arndt and Zez Confrey composed and recorded rolls of virtuosic ragtime works (Suisman 2012, 244). Outside of parlors and concert halls, player pianos labored tirelessly in saloons, movie theaters, restaurants, dance halls, roller rinks, and department stores, or even in the streets luring in passersby.

The player piano emerged at a time when many consumers were open to, and fascinated by, technical innovations. Industrialized manufacturing practices and the mechanical improvements that took place in the early 20th century—due, at least in part, to the technological pressures of the First World War—led countries like the United States through what John E. Kasson calls “a pivotal transition from an economy organized around production to one organized around consumption and leisure as well” (Kasson1978, 106).2 Transformations in manufacturing and industry—Taylorism, scientific management, mass production, assembly lines—carried over into the cultural sphere wherein the production and consumption of mechanical instruments and piano rolls soared.

One of the main themes in this book is the shifting role of labor in musical practices, especially as it manifests in mechanical musical labor. In the early 20th century, American factories restructured their labor practices and forever changed the definition of “productivity.” Frederick Winslow Taylor championed a system of labor that emphasized efficiency in obtaining the end result. Scientific management analyzes larger tasks into component tasks until they are simple enough to require only relatively unskilled laborers. Laborers then carry out the same task each day in a desubjectivized mechanization of what may have formerly required one highly skilled laborer. This is the process of deskilling. Taylor’s system (and slightly later the Model T assembly lines of Henry Ford) stems from the American managerial revolution, a revolution at the tail end of the 19th century, led by engineers, that saw success in improving productivity, efficiency, planning, and systems in the workplace.


This book is an extension of my dissertation project, and as such has been in the works for the last nine years, give or take. I have accumulated a lot of people to thank over those nine years.​

Many thanks to Heidi Bishop, Kaushikee Sharma, and everyone at Routledge for the interest in my project, fielding my questions, and helping me realize this dream. I would also like to thank Roger Moseley for his helpful feedback and editing on the advertisement chapter of this book.

I cannot begin to express my thanks to all of my wonderful teachers. Before I started on this project, Lee Blasius, Ted Conner, Diane Follet, and Brian Hyer nurtured my thinking, my writing, and my musical and scholarly ambitions. Byron Almén, Charles Carson, Eric Drott, Karl Miller, and the late Edward Pearsall were excellent academic role models and provided invaluable guidance and advice throughout my graduate coursework and as I wrote my dissertation.

I extend my sincere thanks to my colleagues and peers at Elon University and the State University of New York at Fredonia. First, Cora Palfy and Lynn Beck inspire me to push myself to do better as a teacher, scholar, and mentor. I am so grateful to be part of our theory team. Second, Gordon Root and Jim Davis showed me what it means to be part of a collegial faculty, and their realistic advice and steadfast support helped give me the confidence to write this book. Third, I am so grateful to my player piano friends, especially Sergio Ospina-Romero and Catherine Hennessy Wolter, for insider information about the instrument, feedback on ideas and drafts, and for their own wonderful work that helps advance this area of research.

I would like to express my deepest appreciation to Jim Buhler, who provided essential help at every stage of this project. From a guided directed reading to overseeing my dissertation, Jim has been a limitless source of advice and feedback. His contributions to my growth as a scholar and a person have led me to a happy and fulfilling career; I am forever grateful for his mentorship.

Special thanks to Rebecca Aguirre, Cait Hawley, and Tiffany Reilly for their friendship, loyalty, encouragement, and for knowing very little about this project. It is immensely comforting to have all of your support in every aspect of my life. You three keep me from going too far down the academic rabbit hole. Thank you to my family, especially Erin, Marc, Ethan, Owen, Liam, Nora, Jesse, Luke, and Jude. Although we live far away from one another, I am still so thankful to have you all in my life.

Thank you to Millie for the distracting walks, for playing ball in the backyard with me during my breaks, and for lovely snuggles in the evenings. And to my grandma, Rose: I miss you every day. I know you would be so proud.

I am deeply indebted to my amazing parents, Maryellen and Chuck, and my in-laws, Mary and David. I am so so grateful for all of your unwavering love and support, not to mention all of the reliable childcare. And to my boys, Austin and Reed, thank you for keeping me laughing, moving, and snuggling. You remind me that there is more to life than academic success; family is what is most important. I love you both unconditionally.

Finally, to Alex, thank you for being my best friend and true love. I am unspeakably grateful for your boundless affection, humor, and support (both technical and otherwise). I would never have been able to write this book, do my job, and mother our boys without you. You have my lifelong love and devotion.

Extention type
File size
19.3 MB
First release
Last update
0.00 star(s) 0 ratings

More resources from Tokyo