This week we are highlighting another item from Alex Jay’s recent donation of Chinese-American-themed materials: QRS Piano Roll. This particular roll features the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Flower Drum Song (1961) film, starring many Asian American actors such as Nancy Kwan and Jack Soo. The film itself was based on the original 1957 novel Flower Drum Song written by C.Y. Lee and the subsequent Broadway spectacle of the same title produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein the year after. Many are most familiar with the most recent Flower Drum Song iteration that was revised by David Henry Hwang in 2002.

Regarding the media itself, piano rolls are classified as mechanical playback devices. The music information is recorded onto a roll of paper, with holes punched out into long blocks to represent the different keystrokes/notes of the piano. On playback, the roll is fed through the pneumatically powered piano player, and as the blocks roll past a brass bar known as a tracker bar, air goes through and triggers an actuator that would play the corresponding piano key. The manner of representing piano notations as visual blocks carries on in the digital world in the form of MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, where instead of physical holes, notes are visually represented as digital blocks in a program that instructs an instrument to play in a specific manner.

Much like vinyl records, piano rolls saw popular use in the early and mid-20th centuries before the proliferation of digital music formats. Surprisingly, piano rolls and piano players (a.k.a) can still be purchased, albeit in limited availability and selection compared to vinyl which experienced a recent resurgence.

QRS Piano Roll. Interestingly these Piano Rolls are still being manufactured by QRS Music even in 2023. Courtesy of Alex Jay, Museum of Chinese in American (MOCA) Collection.
QRS piano roll with the information stamp. Courtesy of Alex Jay, Museum of Chinese in American (MOCA) Collection.
Piano rolls typically feature lyrics to accompany the music, in case you wanted to sing along. Courtesy of Alex Jay, Museum of Chinese in American (MOCA) Collection.

External Links

How Does A Player Piano Work? – A Basic Explanation


How to play a Pianola


Player Piano Rolls – How its Made