The Workings of a Self-Play Piano

Watching a piano play itself is not unheard of but quite a fascinating thing to see. Have you ever wondered how that works? A piano that can be played traditionally as well as being able to play a tune itself with no-one touching the keys?

The pianola, a roll-operated self-playing piano, was first invented in the 1900s by Edwin S. Votey. The mechanism for reading and playing the music was a reel of paper with holes in it which was fed through the piano, and air pressure applied to the reel of paper. When the air pressure pushed through one of the holes in the paper, it caused the relevant key to be played. Quite amazing, wouldn’t you say? The pianola was very popular in its day and even though it could only play a solid note from each key, it still was a favourite musical instrument in many homes.

So, back to that question of ever wondering how a self-play piano self-plays? It’s quite magic really. Each piano is built as a normal manually operated musical instrument – standard mechanisms, with keys, strings, hammers, soundboards, and a strong frame. All the basic components and structure of a piano and manually playable. Now for the magic part. A solenoid rail is constructed using electromagnetic technology, which is concealed in the piano key bed and operates the existing key, hammer, and action to make the piano play itself.

The normal automation of playing a note goes like this: you play a key, the other end of that key shifts upwards (inside the piano) and hits the hammer onto the string and then releases the hammer from the string, allowing the string to continue vibrating the note. This happens all in one cycle, with one hit of the key.

The solenoid rail does exactly what the fingers would do, but they push up from underneath the back of the key, to produce the same cycle and effect. Pushing the key up inside the piano, forces the front end of the key to push down – the part of the key you can see, showing you that the key is being played. It’s exactly the same as having a pianist play your piano, the same sound of a real hammer playing a real string. In addition, each key has 1000 graduations of touch, from very light to very hard and there are 127 ranges of force with which each key can be played to perfectly replicate the playing dynamics of a real pianist.

So how does the piano know how to play? This is where it gets a little more technical. In production, each piece is played on the piano manually by a pianist, whilst infrared sensors record which key is played when, how hard and how fast that key is pressed by the pianist, and how long each note is held down for. All this data is digitally recorded as a midi file, which is then uploaded to Edelweiss’s external digital library and converted into a format that works with the piano., Each track is then downloaded onto your piano’s dedicated iPad which connects via Bluetooth to your piano. The iPad and computer software built into the self-play system then work together to control the solenoid rail, making each solenoid perform exactly as the original piece was performed by the pianist’s fingers on the keyboard! Our digital library has 1000s of songs and can be access through the MyEdelweiss App on Apple Music.

If you have an antique piano that you would like to self-play – we can make and fit this for you by our very experienced Retrofit team! We handmake the self-play mechanism for every individual piano and your beloved antique or special piano possession can have this magical addition built in.

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