Introducing Stanford’s Digital Piano Roll Archive

Ignace Paderewski at the Welte-Mignon Studio

The Archive of Recorded Sound (ARS) at Stanford University Libraries holds a major collection of perforated paper rolls for mechanical player pianos — otherwise known as piano rolls.

During their heyday around the turn of the twentieth century, player pianos spanned the globe and brought music into all kinds of homes and establishments. The rolls contained the data that brought the instruments to life. There were rolls geared to the tastes of immigrant communities; rolls turning out the latest hits; rolls documenting artists in emerging, soon-to-be hugely influential genres like ragtime and stride piano; and rolls with works by composers like Chopin and Liszt, performed by the great classical pianists of the era, and sometimes even performed by the composers themselves.

After the invention of sound recording and the popular embrace of phonographs and commercially recorded discs, the performances captured on the rolls faded from public memory. But rolls didn't die out altogether — in fact, they were manufactured throughout the twentieth century. Communities of roll enthusiasts recognized the rolls’ cultural value and continued to seek them out. Private individuals maintained magnificent roll collections, held concerts, created forums to exchange information, and developed innovative methods for generating sound recordings from digital scans of the rolls.

Stanford has benefited from the expertise of this community and developed a formal program to preserve piano rolls digitally while making them widely accessible once again for research and enjoyment. This online exhibit provides digital access to a subset of Stanford’s roll collection via image files (full-color and monochrome), MIDI files, and audio files.

Piano rolls offer an aural window into an earlier era. We invite you to use this exhibit to search, browse, and explore the piano rolls in the collection; learn about the research conducted at Stanford on player pianos and rolls; and delve into the significance of piano rolls for the study of historical performance practice.

What is the relationship of the digital files to the original rolls?

Working with expert consultants and commercial vendors, Stanford developed a unique optical scanner that generates a master TIFF file from a piano roll. Each TIFF file is intended to permanently preserve the musical data on the original paper roll, encoded exactly as the data appears on the original. The TIFF file is the source for the MIDI and audio files.

Because a piano roll is essentially a set of instructions that is realized on a mechanical instrument, there is no single definitive sounded performance. We have drawn on the most current available research to generate a digital performance in the audio file that emulates the experience of having heard the rolls in the original on a well-maintained acoustic player piano.

Listening and access

Our digital files are freely available to download, whether for research or entertainment, to create recuts, or to generate new audio realizations using different software.

You can access the rolls through this exhibit and through the Stanford Libraries catalog, Searchworks, which also contains information about the original rolls. To find rolls in this exhibit, use the search function or visit the browse pages, which include curated selections from the roll collection.

See the section called “Accessing the rolls” for step-by-step instructions for playing and downloading the files.