Encountering a self-playing piano for the first time is enough to blow a six-year-old’s mind. But as Mark Rober demonstrates, Chopstix, a self-playing piano featuring more modern upgrades, can do things like actually speak words just like a human can, which is enough to blow an adult’s mind too.
The first self-playing pianos debuted in the early 1900s and were powered by bellows that pumped air through complex mechanisms and triggered piano keys to press themselves by manipulating air pressure. Long paper scrolls punched with small holes allowed countless songs to be loaded and played, but the automated performances lacked nuance, and in the mid-1920s the popularity of self-playing pianos died off as the quality of radio and even phonographs improved, giving music fans better ways of enjoying their favorite performances at home.
But self-playing pianos are far from extinct. The most respected names in piano-making today, such as Steinway and Edelweiss, still manufacture pianos that can play themselves but they use modern components that can recreate the most nuanced performances and can even be synced to a real pianist performing anywhere around the world. Chopstix is a self-playing upright piano from Edelweiss that has been further upgraded so that the electromagnetic solenoid actuators that activate every key can all be triggered at the same time. Normally it’s limited to around 30 keys at any one time, which is already well beyond the capabilities of a human player.
That simple upgrade gives Chopstix some especially impressive capabilities. Rush E is considered to be one of the most complex songs for piano ever composed, and it’s entirely impossible for a ten-fingered human pianist to play without having the ability to slow-down time, but Chopstix handles it with ease. (The plumes of smoke seen in the video weren’t the piano overheating, but a smoke bomb added for dramatic effect.)
Where Chopstix gets even more impressive is that its ability to play all of its keys at the same time—or large groups of keys with 127 different levels of force and intensity thanks to the solenoids—also allows it to perform more than just the notes and chords of an incredibly complex song. Using Fourier transforms (some fun Monday morning mathematics) the soundwaves of a human voice recording can be broken down and reproduced by playing several piano keys at once. The results aren’t as crystal clear as a real recorded human voice and Rober admits to cheating in the video and using subtitles to make Chopstix’s voice more comprehensible, but it’s no less impressive a feat.