Raspberry Pi pianola roll player

Maker Dave Parsonage satisfied his tastes for things both antiquated and techy by using a Raspberry Pi to build a pianola.

Raspberry Pi Model 3B+ powers this old-timey instrument. Dave says this is just a prototype but it looks pretty cool to us.

What is a pianola?

Unless you were around in the very early 1900s, or you frequent Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion often, or you are a massive music nerd like our Liz, you might not know what one is. (Liz has been banging on at length about a pianola she was on intimate terms with in childhood and has somehow now got onto the mechanism in steam-powered fairground organs. Please make it stop.) A pianola is a self-playing piano, containing a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism to operate the piano keys and play music that it “reads” from a roll of perforated paper. Some rare examples use metallic rolls instead of perforated paper; most modern iterations, like Dave’s, use MIDI to play the music.


People started collecting and restoring them around the 1950s, but Dave has built an original instrument from scratch.

How does it work?

Dave liberated a light sensor from an old A3 scanner. The perforated paper is moved across this sensor by a stepper motor. A C++ program reads the output of the sensor, and converts it to MIDI code as it receives it.

From this angle you can just about see the Raspberry Pi in its case to the right of the paper roll

A USB-to-MIDI converter takes this digital output and feeds it into an electric piano.

Dave’s pianola can play either 65- or 88-note music rolls, and this setup can be used with any instrument that can play MIDI. The USB-to-MIDI converter can just feed the digital output into whatever you want to use it with.

The pianola’s output on an oscillope screen

Dave also hooked his creation up to a monitor which shows the output of the sensor on an oscilloscope screen.


Stuart avatar

Has Liz read “False Value” in the “Rivers of London” series of books…?

Liz Upton avatar

Liz has not! Liz will remedy this.

Stuart avatar

Excellent! It has both pianolas and Ada Lovelace…

David Goadby avatar

A really neat project. I would love to know how he re-purposed the A3 scanner sensor. I have a printer that I am about to break up and I need to read some ancient 8 hole paper tape.

Kevin Roach avatar

Nice project! Would like to build one of these sometime.I hope he makes the info available for other people to build! This set up may also work for the old Stella’s that used the metal discs, just have to set up spinning the disc.

Bonzadog avatar

If one does not have an old A3 scanner handy – what would you suggest for the appropriate components?

Andy avatar

Pianola? or just player piano? (Not Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, though that’s worth a read)
Just so happens my grandfather arranged music for them for a living – he died when my mother was five, and I don’t have any of his rolls, more’s the pity.
Keep up the good work – who knows, with a Pi and roll of music, we could see Kurt’s future yet!

Liz Upton avatar

The fairground organ I was boring everybody to death with read cards; it was installed in the Gallopers in the old fairground – now long gone – at Woburn Abbey (now in someone’s private collection, and I believe it’s been separated from the carousel) and took giant cards, which you could watch being fed in and out of the machinery as you went around on the horses. I remember that some of them were looking much the worse for wear back in the 80s, and were sellotaped together. It was a magical thing; it played bits of the Nutcracker Suite, some Johann Strauss (still the only format I’m happy to sit through the Radetsky March in), and I think I remember the waltz from Sleeping Beauty and some Swan Lake too. It had a surprisingly large percussion section (including a glockenspiel, drums and cymbals) along with the pipe organ. I’d love to know where it is now; I hope it’s been restored. It was an incredible instrument and a magical piece of engineering.

SunBakedinWA avatar

You should go to the Great Dorset Steam Fair.
Many fair ground organs being played lots of them powered by steam traction engines. If you remember “The Computer Programme” ‘Mac was filmed there showing the operation of a card reader as a visual representation of binary data storage

Robin Clewer avatar

It sounds a lot like this one – fully restored and until the pandemic open to the public – the lady smiled when I remarked “wow – it looks like Edwardian MIDI!” – it uses wooden cards hinged together – I will dig out my videos of it working

Liz Upton avatar

Thank you!

nahjongg avatar

In the netherlands such organs can still be found playing in the streets, and together with automated weaving looms they are one of the earliest forms of a programable device.
There is also a museum about them in the city of Utrecht.
see https://www.museumspeelklok.nl/lang/en/

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