QRS: Since 1900

Elizabeth Dale

A player piano or a pianola as they often referred was the instrument to own in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Owning a player piano instantly transformed ordinary household into musical paradises when being proficient in an instrument was often a rarity and the invention of modern entertainment like radio and television was still years away.

  • 2000 QRS Catalog

Player pianos operate with the help of a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano actions in lieu of a musician sitting behind the ivories. Pre-programmed music recorded typically on perforated paper (or using MIDI in a modern version) deliver the instruction to the piano action that result in the piano playing the desired note. With sales peaking in 1924, the player piano then saw a decline in sales as innovations like the phonograph and eventually the radio started to dominate the musical landscape in most homes with a near extinction of the instrument occurring in 1929 alongside the stock market crash that was then followed by the Great Depression.

Despite the odds being stacked against the player piano, in the late 20th centuries, there has remained a market for the unique instrument and its rolls, the latter of which has been continuously represented by manufacturer and NAMM Member QRS. QRS was established in 1900 by Melville Clark and has been continuously manufacturing player piano rolls ever since. At the height of production for QRS in 1927, the company was selling approximately 10 million rolls.

In April 2013, NAMM’s Oral History Program sat down with QRS Past President, Bob Berkman, to document the history of this resilient company. In the featured webclip, Bob discussed the importance of Melville Clark in establishing an industry standard for roll construction.

Bob Berkman

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Despite a renewed interest in player piano rolls in the 1950s, QRS was able to capitalize on the wave of future and in 1989 they released the first kit to digitally retrofit player pianos and even has recently released PNOmation, which integrates the use of smartphones and tablets in the use of the instrument, making the player piano accessible to a new generation of musicians.

If you ever find yourself in the Carlsbad, California area be sure to visit the NAMM Foundation’s Museum of Making Music and their collection of player pianos, one of which, a 1908 Cable Co. Carola “Inner Player” Piano, is designed to play a QRS roll.