Novelty piano

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The sheet music for "Dizzy Fingers" by Zez Confrey, one of the most popular of the novelty piano composers.

Novelty piano is a genre of piano and novelty music that was popular during the 1920s. A successor to ragtime and an outgrowth of the piano roll music of the 1910s, novelty piano can be considered a pianistic cousin of jazz, which appeared around the same time. "Nola," a 1915 composition by New York pianist Felix Arndt, is generally considered the first novelty piano hit. Many early novelty composers were piano roll artists from the Chicago area, where two of the largest piano roll companies, QRS and Imperial, had their headquarters. Though also often highly syncopated, it is distinct from stride piano, which was developed in New York at about the same time. Novelty piano influenced jazz.[1]

The earliest composers of novelty piano were piano roll artists looking to sell piano rolls. These pieces started out as highly complex rags with characteristic breaks, consecutive fourths, and advanced harmonies. The pioneer of this style was Charley Straight, whose compositions were issued on piano roll years before Confrey's novelty hits. Early Charley Straight novelties include "S'more," "Playmor," "Nifty Nonsense," "Rufenreddy," and "Wild And Wooly."

Novelty piano came most powerfully to the attention of the public in 1921, with the appearance of Zez Confrey's "Kitten on the Keys". The popularity of this piece quickly led to other Confrey works including "Dizzy Fingers" and "Greenwich Witch", and inspired other artists to issue novelty pieces. The style remained popular through the end of the decade, at which time big bands were on the rise, player pianos were in decline, and the popularity of jazz continued unabated. Novelty piano slowly succumbed to, or was absorbed into, the new orchestral styles as the piano moved off center stage and took on more of a "support" role.

Although novelty piano has structural and stylistic similarities to the earlier ragtime form, there are also distinct differences. Ragtime was generally sold in the form of sheet music, so it was important to keep it simple enough to be played by the competent amateur. By the mid-teens, though, two new technologies had appeared which allowed the general public to hear music as performed by skilled musicians: the "hand-played" piano roll and the phonograph record. Novelty piano was developed as a vehicle to showcase the talents of these professionals, and was thus more often sold in the form of recordings and piano rolls than as sheet music. It was a new "turbo-charged" piano form, shorn of hackneyed, Victorian-era stylings, infused with chromatic piano roll flourishes, and influenced by the "modernistic" sounds of the art-deco twenties (which were themselves largely adopted from the French "Impressionist" pianists such as Debussy and Satie; "novelty" pianists tended to be highly classically trained, so were fully familiar with such "modern" pianists, and their fondness for complex chordal intricacies).

Prominent artists in the novelty piano genre include Zez Confrey, Charley Straight, Roy Bargy, Pauline Alpert, Fred Elizalde, Rube Bloom, Clement Doucet, Max Kortlander, and Billy Mayerl.


  1. ^ Hines, Earl (January 1, 2006). Selected Piano Solos, 1928-1941: 1928-1941. A-R Editions, Inc. ISBN 9780895795809 – via Google Books.

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