Music Box Discussion

Music Article from the first page:

More recently the term “music box” is commonly used to include other mechanical music producing machines including player pianos, elaborate self playing coin operated Nickelodeon pianos often used in bars (approx. 1900 – 1930), self playing band organs (often referred to as carousel organs or fairground organs). Also under this heading one might find automated birds which move and sing quite convincingly, machines which play a violin, a banjo, and many others!

In early days, prior to radio or any sort of musical recording mediums, music was only available where a person or persons with the requisite abilities were there to produce it. As a result, from early days, and most successfully in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, great efforts were directed at developing mechanical mechanisms to produce/play quality music.

The following is not all inclusive but describes various basic Mechanical Music in additional detail:

Current cylinder music boxes: There are many small, inexpensive musical box movements which are made for use in novelty items, children’s toys, jewelry boxes, etc. Perhaps you have seen one of these which are typically about 2″ square and include a wind up spring, a metal musical “comb” with perhaps 20 notes, and a cylinder with projections on it’s surface. As the cylinder rotates the projections lift and release various of the tuned comb teeth to produce a song. Fine versions of this type of movement are also currently produced.

Antique cylinder boxes:

Antique cylinder boxes are similar in working configuration as those described above. During the 19th Century a large variety of cylinder music boxes were made, widely varying in size, case, configuration, etc. These boxes are of fine quality, producing (when functionally correct) beautiful music. Many of the music boxes produced are extremely fine, superb, virtually indescribable quality, amazing intricacy, and producing musical renditions which are exquisite. The more common of these mechanisms are housed in wooden boxes, one to two feet long, playing 4-12 songs, and were made between 1870-1890. Other boxes may be smaller or larger, some boxes date to the very early 1800’s. In later production, cylinder boxes were produced with multiple cylinders which could be interchanged for additional tunes. Most of this type box were made in Switzerland.

During the last decade of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century disc playing music boxes were produced. These machines utilized a disc with a song punched into the metal surface. The music disk, as it turns, rotates small star shaped wheels, which in turn pluck (lift and release) the appropriate notes on the musical “comb”. The removable disk idea allows for a wide variety of tunes on the music box. Many of this type of music box were made in the USA as well as Europe. Music boxes, as described above, produce crystalline, pure musical notes (not greatly unlike fine bells) and are often heard playing Christmas music on the radio during that season.

Other forms of self playing mechanical music instruments are discussed below: Although these are not “music boxes” in the classic sense they are often referred to as such.

One type is referred to as a “bird box“, or in a larger format, a “bird cage”. The small bird boxes, about the size of a medium bar of soap, feature a small bird (approx. 1 1/4 inch long) which suddenly appears, sings a song, and quickly disappears beneath a trap door. These birds are highly articulated including beaks in synchronous motion with the music, flitting, turning, fluttering wings, etc. The larger bird cages ( up to nearly two feet high ), often feature multiple birds which speak in turns, amazing renditions of bird song and are quite intriguing.

Perhaps the most common of all mechanical music is the player piano. These were made in large quantities in the early 20th Century and most readers have probably seen an example. These pianos are foot pumped to create vacuum and utilize a perforated paper music roll for the music program. These pianos were primarily found in private residences where they produced wonderful music when pumped via foot power. Home players were available in electric motorized versions for those less inclined to provide people power.

Other home players were produced which are electrified and use special music rolls, with additional perforations, to control music intensity to the smallest nuance. These reproducing pianos, as they are referred to, produce beautiful music with “personality”, which is highly imitative of the music, as played by the original performer.

Other home style mechanical music includes large and small “people powered” reed organs. These organs utilize reeds as in a harmonica or accordion for sound and various unique perforated paper rolls for the music program.

Another type of player piano which was marketed primarily for commercial (coin-op) operation, was embellished with stained glass panels, fancy case design, electrified, and utilizing (usually) a large 10 tune roll. These are commonly referred to as coin pianos or Nickelodeons (this second term borrowed form the earlier usage referring to five cent silent movie houses). Nickelodeons were found in bars, brothels, restaurants, and other commercial establishments where pleasant and lively music was desired without the need of a hired musician. In addition to the piano, many Nickelodeons included a banjo sounding effect, a xylophone or pipes, and perhaps a drum or other percussions.

Other large and very complex commercial machines (similar to but incorporating more instrumentation than nickelodeons) are referred to as orchestrions. There utilize large amounts of additional instrumentation, perhaps multiple ranks of pipes, belts, bass and snare drums plus other percussions and were capable of some quite amazing performances.

Various mechanical pipe organs were produced around the turn of the Century with production greatly falling off around 1930. The musical program for these organs is generally one of three: a large wooden cylinder with metal projections which directly play the organ as the cylinder rotates, or perforated folding cardboard book, or a paper roll.

Smaller “street organs” were quite portable and could be taken to a promising street corner where the organ grinder (owner) would crank it for contributions from passersby. Larger versions were built on push carts.

Medium to large organs were built for use in roller rinks and merry-go-rounds. These “band organs” or “carousel organs” typically utilized trumpet, flute, piccolo, violin, trombone, viola, and other helper pipe voices. Band organs were powered by an electric motor or by belt from the rotating merry-go-round. When working properly these machines are wonderful to listen to.

The very largest of the mechanical music organs are referred to as “fairground organs”. These are quite sophisticated musically and include many pipe voices. They were made primarily in France and Germany from the 1890’s through the early 20th Century.

Please email your thoughts, questions, and corrections regarding this discussion. As this article evolves we will get into quality and other issues.

We look forward to hearing from you…

Yours Truly, Alan S. Erb