Bob Berkman
Pianola Enterprises

The Player Piano: A Neglected Resource in American Studies and Ethnomusicology

As the foot-pumped player piano and its rolls re-emerge as objects of scholarly inquiry, problems arise in identifying potential new inquiries and in finding the resources and materials needed to illuminate them. In addition to older mainstream piano roll topics (such as the rise of ragtime and jazz, now ripe with new technological possibilities and fresh cultural perspectives), there exist numerous unexamined topics in the areas of American Studies and ethnomusicology that can shed light on important cultural, technological, and trade histories. These topics include rolls made by and for America’s immigrant groups, and rolls made by and for parties hostile to them; player pianos and rolls as propaganda tools in both World Wars; the early commodification of Country & Western music; the part played by early Rock ’n’ Roll in the player piano revival of the 1950s; early technological hybridization attempts involving the player piano and the phonograph; and the timeline of American pop culture discernible on over a century of uninterrupted piano roll issues. My own research into these topics begins this work and helps draw into focus the questions that need to be answered about sound archives and the preservation of instruments.

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Bob Berkman joined the staff of QRS Music Rolls, Inc., the last of the original piano roll manufacturers, in 1975. There, he produced a successful series of new issues and vintage reissues for over thirty years, providing him with unique perspectives on both piano roll COMMERCE as it relates to pop culture, and on piano roll CRAFT as it evolved from paper master rolls to contemporary digital technology. Meanwhile, he has steadily earned an international reputation as a scholar and pianolist. He developed text and exhibits for the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, and has given pianola concerts across the U.S., including engagements for the Society of American Musicologists, the American Musical Instrument Society, and the American Matthay Association at the Eastman School of Music. His particular interest in the neglected area of ethnic rolls prompted him to establish the largest institutionally-held collection of such rolls at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, where he has taught and performed as a Visiting Scholar. Bob’s Player Piano Appendix to A DICTIONARY FOR THE MODERN PIANIST, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016, has been hailed as “the best single thing ever published on the subject” by International Piano Archives co-founder Gregor Benko. One of Bob’s 88-note push-up pianolas has just been accepted for donation to the Player Piano Project at Stanford University, and his unusual collection of rolls, documents, and related material will be made available to researchers. His credits as a roll artist include rolls commissioned for the films RAGTIME and REDS, the latter in cooperation with composer Stephen Sondheim; and the world premieres of his roll realizations of Prokofiev’s PETER AND THE WOLF and Satie’s PARADE, the latter at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. For further information, please visit