A music box (American English) or musical box (British English) is an automatic musical instrument in a box that produces musical notes by using a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disc to pluck the tuned teeth (or lamellae) of a steel comb. The earliest known mechanical musical instruments date back to 9th-century Baghdad. In Flanders, in the early 13th century, a bell ringer invented a cylinder with pins which operate cams, which then hit the bells. (See below.) The popular device best known today as a "music box" developed from musical snuff boxes of the 18th century and were originally called carillons à musique (French for "chimes of music"). Some of the more complex boxes also contain a tiny drum and/or bells in addition to the metal comb.
The original snuff boxes were tiny containers which could fit into a gentleman's waistcoat pocket. The music boxes could have any size from that of a hat box to a large piece of furniture, but most were tabletop specimens. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by artisan watchmakers. For most of the 19th century, the bulk of music box production was concentrated in Switzerland, building upon a strong watchmaking tradition. The first music box factory was opened there in 1815 by Jérémie Recordon and Samuel Junod. There were also a few manufacturers in Bohemia and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, some of the European makers had opened factories in the United States.
The cylinders were normally made of metal and powered by a spring. In some of the costlier models, the cylinders could be removed to change melodies, thanks to an invention by Paillard in 1862, which was perfected by Metert of Geneva in 1879.[ citation needed ] In some exceptional models, there were four springs, to provide continuous play for up to three hours.
The very first boxes at the end of the 18th century made use of metal disks. The switchover to cylinders seems to have been completed after the Napoleonic wars. In the last decades of the 19th century, however, mass-produced models such as the Polyphon and others all made use of interchangeable metal disks instead of cylinders. The cylinder-based machines rapidly became a minority.
The term "music box" is also applied to clockwork devices where a removable metal disk or cylinder was used only in a "programming" function without producing the sounds directly by means of pins and a comb. Instead, the cylinder (or disk) worked by actuating bellows and levers which fed and opened pneumatic valves which activated a modified wind instrument or plucked the chords on a modified string instrument. Some devices could do both at the same time and were often combinations of player pianos and music boxes, such as the Orchestrion.
There were many variations of large music machines, usually built for the affluent of the pre-phonograph 19th century.
The Symphonium company started business in 1885 as the first manufacturers of disc-playing music boxes.Two of the founders of the company, Gustave Brachhausen and Paul Riessner, left to set up a new firm, Polyphon, in direct competition with their original business and their third partner, Oscar Paul Lochmann. Following the establishment of the Original Musikwerke Paul Lochmann in 1900, the founding Symphonion business continued until 1909.
According to the Victoria Museums in Australia, "The Symphonion is notable for the enormous diversity of types, styles, and models produced... No other disc-playing musical box exists in so many varieties. The company also pioneered the use of electric motors... the first model fitted with an electric motor being advertised in 1900. The company moved into the piano-orchestrion business and made both disc-operated and barrel-playing models, player-pianos, and phonographs."
Meanwhile, Polyphon expanded to America, where Brachhausen established the Regina Company. Regina was a spectacular success (see Wikipedia article). It eventually reinvented itself as a maker of vacuums and steam cleaners.
In the heyday of the music box, some variations were as tall as a grandfather clock and all used interchangeable large disks to play different sets of tunes. These were spring-wound and driven and both had a bell-like sound. The machines were often made in England, Italy, and the US, with additional disks made in Switzerland, Austria, and Prussia. Early "juke-box" pay versions of them existed in public places. Marsh's free Museum and curio shop in Long Beach, Washington (US) has several still-working versions of them on public display. The Musical Museum, Brentford, London has a number of machines.The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, USA has a notable collection, including interactive exhibits. In addition to video and audio footage of each piece, the actual instruments are demonstrated for the public daily on a rotational basis.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most music boxes were gradually replaced by player pianos, which were louder and more versatile and melodious, when kept tuned, and by the smaller gramophones which had the advantage of playing back voices. Regina produced combinations of these devices. Escalating labour costs increased the price and further reduced volume. Now modern automation is helping to bring music box prices back down.
Collectors prize surviving music boxes from the 19th century and the early 20th century as well as new music boxes being made today in several countries (see "Evolving Box Production", below). Inexpensive, small windup music box movements (including the cylinder and comb and the spring) that add a bit of music to mass-produced jewellery boxes and novelty items are now produced in countries with low labour costs.
Many kinds of music box movements are available to the home craft person, locally or through online retailers. A wide range of recordings and videos of historic music boxes is available on the web.
9th century: In Baghdad, Iraq, the Banū Mūsā brothers, a trio of Persian inventors, produced "the earliest known mechanical musical instrument", in this case a hydropowered organ which played interchangeable cylinders automatically, which they described in their Book of Ingenious Devices . According to Charles B. Fowler, this "cylinder with raised pins on the surface remained the basic device to produce and reproduce music mechanically until the second half of the nineteenth century."
Early 13th century: In Flanders, an ingenious bell ringer invents a cylinder with pins which operates cams, which then hit the bells.
1598: Flemish clockmaker Nicholas Vallin produces a wall-mounted clock which has a pinned barrel playing on multiple tuned bells mounted in the superstructure. The barrel can be programmed, as the pins can be separately placed in the holes provided on the surface of the barrel.
1665: Ahasuerus Fromanteel in London makes a table clock which has quarter striking and musical work on multiple bells operated by a pinned barrel. These barrels can be changed for those playing different tunes.
1760s: Watches are made in London by makers such as James Cox which have a pinned drum playing popular tunes on several small bells arranged in a stack.
1772: A watch is made by one Ransonet at Nancy, France which has a pinned drum playing music not on bells but on tuned steel prongs arranged vertically.
1780: The mechanical singing bird is invented by the Jaquet-Droz brothers, clockmakers from La Chaux-de-Fonds. In 1848, the manufacturing of the singing birds is improved by Blaise Bontems in his Parisian workshop, to the point where it has remained unchanged to this day. Barrel organs become more popular.
1796: Antoine Favre-Salomon, a clockmaker from Geneva replaces the stack of bells by a comb with multiple pre-tuned metallic notes in order to reduce space. Together with a horizontally placed pinned barrel, this produces more varied and complex sounds. One of these first music boxes is now displayed at the Shanghai Gallery of Antique Music Boxes and Automata in Pudong's Oriental Art Center.Numerous musical objects are produced in greater quantities in Geneva by several makers.
1800: Isaac Daniel Piguet in Geneva produces repeating musical watches with a pinned horizontal disc operating radially arranged tuned steel teeth.
1811: The first music boxes are produced in Sainte-Croix; an industry which surpasses the watchmaking and lace industries, and rapidly brings renown to the town. At this time, the musical-box industry represents 10% of Switzerland's export.
1865: Charles Reuge, a watchmaker from the Val-de-Travers, settles in Sainte-Croix. He is one of many artisans making pocket watches with musical movements of the traditional calibre.
1870: A German inventor creates a music box with discs, therefore allowing an easier and more frequent change of tunes. It is also the golden years of automata. Already known in Egypt, they will be improved to become real works of art.
1877: Thomas Edison invents the phonograph, which has important consequences for the musical-box industry, especially around the end of the century.
1892: Gustave Brachhausen, who had been involved with the manufacturer of Polyphon disk music boxes in Germany, sails for America to establish the Regina Music Box Company in New Jersey. Regina, whose boxes are renowned among collectors for their tone, becomes a success and some 100,000 are sold before sales cease in 1921.
Early 20th century: The invention of the phonograph, the First World War and the economic crisis in the '20s bring down Sainte-Croix's main industry and make the luxury music box completely disappear.
Between the two world wars most of the Swiss companies converted to the manufacture of other products requiring precise mechanical parts. Some went back to making watches, others were eventually responsible for the famous Bolex movie cameras and the Hermes typewriters. Some simply sold out to Reuge.
Located near Lake Neuchâtel, Reuge is one of the last of the Swiss survivors making music boxes of all sizes and shapes, with or without automatons in a modern style with clear acrylic sides to see the mechanical operation. They have branched out widely from their original cylinder offerings over the years, and now offer traditional-looking music boxes with removable metal disks for around 1,000 euros, with each disk costing in the neighborhood of 14 euros. The higher range boxes with removable cylinders and small assorted tables made of fine woods can cost up to 34,000 euros. They also sell several models of clear acrylic paperweights with a music box movement inside, for a minimum of about 250 euros. They have, however, discontinued the smaller movements. Old Reuge music boxes are worth thousands of dollars but even so, cannot be compared to the fabulously large and highly complex music boxes which were produced in nineteenth-century Switzerland by legendary makers such as Nicole Frères or Paillard. Since approximatively 2007 Reuge developed a strong business in the world of "bespoke" customized pieces for leaders in business and politics.
Nidec Sankyo in Japan started up in the aftermath of World War II, using the latest in automation. Modern production methods resulted in reasonable prices, producing company growth. Sankyo started with small movements, introduced 50-note movements by the late 1970s, and in 2006 is producing disc boxes playing discs as large as 16" (with two 80-note combs and reminiscent of the "Mira") and are also working on a dual-cylinder 100-note movement. Sankyo now offers a wide variety of music boxes in Japan, and supplies movements to many other manufacturers and distributors. Some of these sell them retail (even online) to hobbyists for as low as 3 euros each. Sankyo Seiki bills itself as the biggest manufacturer of music boxes in the world and advertises that it controls 50% of the market. Recently, it has started selling licences for its musical-box tunes to cellular phone companies, for use as ring tones. The company is an industrial concern which also makes magnetic and hologram card readers, appliance components, industrial robots and miniature motors of all kinds.
The Porter Music Box company of Vermont produces steel disc music boxes in several formats. They offer clockwork, spring-wound models as well as electric ones. They stand out by their continuing production of discs, with a selection of about a thousand tunes. The discs can also be played on many antique music boxes bearing the Polyphon and Regina brand names.
The small 18-note musical movements are now being made almost exclusively in countries with low labour costs such as China and Taiwan. Many of these productions are used in mobiles, children's musical toys, and jewellery boxes.
In March 2016, the band Wintergatan released a video of their homemade Marble Machine which took 14 months to make and played in any key using a 3,000-piece wooden construction fueled by 2,000 marbles. Band member Martin Molin used a hand crank to mobilize the marbles, which then created various noises on a vibraphone and other installed musical elements.
In 2019, Tevofy Technology Ltd., based in Taiwan, released the first app-controlled mechanical music box called the Muro Box, an abbreviation of "Music Robot in a Box". Unlike traditional music boxes, people do not need to punch holes to compose songs on a paper-strip music box, and there is no minimum order for making customized music box movement to play a selected song.
In Switzerland, coin-operated music boxes, usually capable of playing several tunes, were installed in places such as train stations and amusement parks. Some of the models had a mechanism for automatically changing the metal disks. These were, in a sense, the precursors to jukebox. However, they soon disappeared from their intended venues and were displaced by the jukebox, which could produce a greater variety of sounds and full songs rather than warped fragments.
Because most of the coin-operated music boxes were built for rough treatment (such as slapping and kicking by a customer), many of these large models have survived into the 21st century, despite their relatively low production quantities. They are sought by collectors who have the space for their large cabinets.
In 1974–1975, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen composed Tierkreis , a set of twelve pieces on the signs of the zodiac, for twelve music boxes.
A gong is an East and Southeast Asian musical percussion instrument that takes the form of a flat, circular metal disc that is hit with a mallet.
A player piano is a self-playing piano, containing a pneumatic or electro-mechanical mechanism that operates the piano action via programmed music recorded on perforated paper, or in rare instances, metallic rolls, with more modern implementations using MIDI. The rise of the player piano grew with the rise of the mass-produced piano for the home in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sales peaked in 1924, then declined as the improvement in phonograph recordings due to electrical recording methods developed in the mid-1920s. The advent of electrical amplification in home music reproduction via radio in the same period helped cause their eventual decline in popularity, and the stock market crash of 1929 virtually wiped out production.
In music, tape loops are loops of magnetic tape used to create repetitive, rhythmic musical patterns or dense layers of sound when played on a tape recorder. Originating in the 1940s with the work of Pierre Schaeffer, they were used among contemporary composers of 1950s and 1960s, such as Éliane Radigue, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who used them to create phase patterns, rhythms, textures, and timbres. Popular music authors of 1960s and 1970s, particularly in psychedelic, progressive and ambient genres, used tape loops to accompany their music with innovative sound effects. In the 1980s, analog audio and tape loops with it gave way to digital audio and application of computers to generate and process sound.
A barrel organ is a French mechanical musical instrument consisting of bellows and one or more ranks of pipes housed in a case, usually of wood, and often highly decorated. The basic principle is the same as a traditional pipe organ, but rather than being played by an organist, the barrel organ is activated either by a person turning a crank, or by clockwork driven by weights or springs. The pieces of music are encoded onto wooden barrels, which are analogous to the keyboard of the traditional pipe organ. A person which plays a barrel organ is known as an organ grinder.
Sound recording and reproduction is an electrical, mechanical, electronic, or digital inscription and re-creation of sound waves, such as spoken voice, singing, instrumental music, or sound effects. The two main classes of sound recording technology are analog recording and digital recording.
In music, an electronic tuner is a device that detects and displays the pitch of musical notes played on a musical instrument. "Pitch" is the perceived fundamental frequency of a musical note, which is typically measured in Hertz. Simple tuners indicate—typically with an analog needle-dial, LEDs, or an LCD screen—whether a pitch is lower, higher, or equal to the desired pitch. Since the early 2010s, software applications can turn a smartphone, tablet, or personal computer into a tuner. More complex and expensive tuners indicate pitch more precisely. Tuners vary in size from units that fit in a pocket to 19" rack-mount units. Instrument technicians and piano tuners typically use more expensive, accurate tuners.
A barrel piano is a forerunner of the modern player piano. Unlike the pneumatic player piano, a barrel piano is usually powered by turning a hand crank, though coin-operated models powered by clockwork were used to provide music in establishments such as pubs and cafés. Barrel pianos were popular with street musicians, who sought novel instruments that were also highly portable. They are frequently confused with barrel organs, but are quite different instruments.
A fairground organ is a pneumatic musical organ covering the wind and percussive sections of an orchestra. Designed for use in a commercial public fairground setting to provide loud music to accompany fairground rides and attractions, mostly used on merry-go-rounds. Unlike organs intended for indoor use, they are designed to produce a large volume of sound to be heard over and above the noise of crowds of people and fairground machinery.
DeBence Antique Music World is a museum in Franklin, Pennsylvania whose collection contains more than 100 antique mechanical musical instruments, including music boxes, band organs, player pianos, a nickelodeon piano, as well as a number of other antiques. Many of the collection's mechanical instruments are rare; a number are among only a few manufactured, and a few are among the last in existence. Although the collection’s value cannot be measured, an offer for a sum of multiple millions of dollars was once rejected.
Tierkreis (1974–75) is a musical composition by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The title is the German word for Zodiac, and the composition consists of twelve melodies, each representing one sign of the zodiac.
A street organ played by an organ grinder is a French-German automatic mechanical pneumatic organ designed to be mobile enough to play its music in the street. The two most commonly seen types are the smaller German and the larger Dutch street organ.
Gavioli & Cie were a Franco–Italian organ builder company that manufactured fairground organs in both Italy and later France.
Alphabet für Liège, for soloists and duos, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and is Work Number 36 in the composer's catalog of works. A performance of it lasts four hours.
Jubiläum (Jubilee) is an orchestral composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, work-number 45 in the composer's catalogue of works.
Musik im Bauch is a piece of scenic music for six percussionists and music boxes composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1975, and is Number 41 in his catalog of works. The world premiere was presented on 28 March 1975 as part of the Royan Festival. The performance was given by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in the haras in the town of Saintes, near to Royan. Its duration is roughly 38 minutes.
Spiral, for a soloist with a shortwave receiver, is a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1968. It is Number 27 in the catalogue of the composer's works.
The Regina Company was a manufacturer of mechanical musical instruments before it became a major vacuum maker.
Polyphon is a disc-playing music box, a mechanical device first manufactured by the Polyphon Musikwerke, located in Leipzig, Germany. Invented in 1870, full-scale production started around 1897 and continued into the early 1900s. Polyphons were exported all over world and music was supplied for the English, French and German markets, as well as further afield, with music cataloged for the Russian, Polish and Balkan regions. Polyphon is also a record label as registered by German Polyphon Musikwerke AG in 1908. Polyphon traded under the Polydor label since 1913 with their trademarks Polyphon Musik and Polyphon Record.
Herbstmusik is a music-theatre work for four performers composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1974. It is Nr. 40 in his catalogue of works, and lasts a little over an hour in performance.
Electric music technology refers to musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits, which are often combined with mechanical technologies. Examples of electric musical instruments include the electro-mechanical electric piano, the electric guitar, the electro-mechanical Hammond organ and the electric bass. All of these electric instruments do not produce a sound that is audible by the performer or audience in a performance setting unless they are connected to instrument amplifiers and loudspeaker cabinets, which made them sound loud enough for performers and the audience to hear. Amplifiers and loudspeakers are separate from the instrument in the case of the electric guitar, electric bass and some electric organs and most electric pianos. Some electric organs and electric pianos include the amplifier and speaker cabinet within the main housing for the instrument.
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