A player piano is a type of piano that is self-playing. While it is rare to see a player piano in modern times, they were quite popular at the beginning of the 20th century, and some still survive. A player piano is played by a pneumatic mechanism that plays music which is coded as a pattern of holes on a perforated roll of paper.
Self-playing musical instruments have been around for many centuries, even for millennia according to some records. By the early 20th century, automatic instruments had become quite sophisticated. The first true player piano was built in 1880 in New York City, and subsequent designs evolved to be even more useful and aesthetically pleasing. Many early player pianos were not integrated into the piano itself, but rather operated externally, and had to be pushed up to the front of the piano and aligned with the keyboard.
As the instrument evolved, the player piano was subject to some variations and redesigns, but in general, the mechanism of player pianos shared some universal characteristics. They were usually based on a principle of suction, which was generated by the user by alternately pressing two foot pedals at the base. A roll of paper was turned on a reel, and the perforations on the paper were read by a device called a tracking bar. When a hole in the paper passed over a certain spot, a valve was allowed to open, triggering a motor which pressed on either the piano key or the string itself, in later models.
A notable degree of popularity attended the player piano in the early 20th century, especially as sales boomed in the 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s effectively spelled the end of the player piano industry, although a few manufacturers attempted to struggle on through the Depression. Something of a player piano revival occurred in the 1960s, leading to the renewed production of player pianos by some manufacturers. Some also made new piano rolls -- the paper with the coded musical selections -- allowing old and new player pianos to play current tunes. This helped to give the player piano a renewed relevance rather than simply being an antique or a historical curiosity.
While the manufacture of player pianos is no longer common, due to the prevalence of programmable digital pianos, some companies offer products that can essentially turn an ordinary piano into a player piano. These operate based on digital technology and are added on to existing pianos in a highly customized fashion. The installation of these kits can often cost as much as a whole new piano, but the new digital player systems are highly advanced and versatile.