A music box or musical box 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. They were developed from musical snuff boxes of the 18th
century and 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.
1.1 Evolving box production
2 Coin-operated models
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
8.1 Audio of historical music boxes
Typical table music box, with six interchangeable cylinders.
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. In some
exceptional models, there were four springs, to provide continuous
play for up to three hours.
Music box using the metal disk system
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.
Mechanical piano combined with strings. There are three violins each
with only one string. Thus only tunes that do not require the missing
fourth string can be played.
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
There were many variations of large music machines, usually built for
the affluent of the pre-phonograph 19th century. Some were called the
Symphonium, others were called the Concert Regina Music Box machine.
Both variations were as tall as a grandfather clock and both used
interchangeable large disks to play different sets of tunes. Both 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 also. Marsh's free Museum
and curio shop in
Long Beach, Washington
Long Beach, Washington (US) has several
still-working versions of them on public display. The Musical Museum,
London has a number of machines. The Morris Museum in
Morristown, NJ, 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
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.
Escalating labour costs increased the price and further reduced
volume. Now modern automation is helping bring music box prices back
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). The cheap,
small windup music box movements (including the cylinder and comb and
the spring) to 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.
Evolving box production
This article is in a list format that may be better presented using
prose. You can help by converting this article to prose, if
appropriate. Editing help is available. (August 2012)
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
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
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
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
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
1800: Isaac Daniel Piguet in
Geneva produces repeating musical watches
with a pinned horizontal disc operating radially arranged tuned steel
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.
Pocket watch with musical movements
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.
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
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.
Music box with dancing Ballerina
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 in a sense branched out widely from
their original cylinder offerings since they also offered traditional
looking music boxes with removable metal disks for around a 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 and about an equivalent
number of US dollars. 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 developped 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
Regina brand names.
The small 18-note musical movements are now being made almost
exclusively in countries with low labour costs such as
Taiwan. Many of these productions are used in mobiles, children's
musical toys, and jewelry boxes.
In March 2016, the band Wintergatan released a video of their homemade
music box that 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
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
typical slapping and kicking by a disgruntled 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 or very large cabinets.
The ratchet lever  rotates the cylinder , the pins pluck the
comb teeth  which produces the music. The whole thing rests on the
Small fifty-tone musical box with detachable handle, around 1900?
The bedplate is the relatively heavy metal foundation on which all the
other pieces are fastened, usually by screws.
The ratchet lever or the windup key is used to put the spring motor
under tension, that is to wind it up.
The spring motor or motors (two or more can be used to make playing
times longer) give anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more of
The comb is a flat piece of metal with dozens or even hundreds of
tuned teeth, or 'reeds', of different lengths.
The cylinder is the programming object, a metallic version of a
punched card which instead of having holes to express a program, is
studded with tiny pins at the correct spacing to produce music by
displacing the teeth of the comb at the correct time. The tines of the
comb 'ring', or sound, as they slip off the pins. The disc in a disc
music box plays this function, with pins perpendicular to the plane
Multiple-tune cylinders have more than one set of pins intertwined on
the same cylinder, with, for example, the B pins for a second song
lying halfway between the B and C pins of the first song, etc.
Offsetting the cylinder slightly relative to the comb brings the
different set of pins into contact with the teeth, thereby playing an
alternate piece of music. Many modern music boxes will have as many as
four sets of pins intertwined, with a mechanism automatically shifting
the cylinder from one song or movement to the next.
Interchangeable music box cylinders
In 1974–75, German composer
Karlheinz Stockhausen composed
Tierkreis, a set of twelve pieces on the signs of the zodiac, for
twelve music boxes.
Icelandic pop musician
Björk makes use of disc-mechanism music boxes
in the 2001 album Vespertine, with specially cut discs.
London-based composer Richard Barrett has written a four-minute piece,
'trace', for two diatonic music boxes.
French musician Colleen released
Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique
Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique in
2006—an album composed and recorded using only music boxes.
Aphex Twin created a piece called "Nannou" by
sampling a music box.
Karlheinz Essl wrote two pieces for punch-tape
controlled music box, Listen Thing (2008) and Pandora's Secret (2009,
New Zealand electronica composer
Rhian Sheehan uses music boxes as
major instrumental and thematic devices, such as in 'Part 3' of his
album Standing In Silence.
Special edition pre-orders of the album
came with a reproduction of the music box that played the main melody
composed for the piece.
Juan María Solare composed a series of pieces for
music boxes in early 2015, a cycle Fairy Lullabies and Kate
Crackernuts, based on a Scottish fairy tale.
Singing bird box
Shanghai Gallery of Antique Music Boxes and Automata
^ a b Fowler, Charles B. (October 1967), "The Museum of Music: A
History of Mechanical Instruments", Music Educators Journal, MENC_ The
National Association for Music Education, 54 (2): 45–49,
doi:10.2307/3391092, JSTOR 3391092 . Citation on p. 45.
^ In the Collections of the British Museum (M.L. Antiquities Dept.
^ Horological Masterworks Exhibition AHS 2003 Catalogue No.14
^ Sotheby's Auction Masterpieces from the Time Museum June 19th 2002
^ en.shoac.com.cn, "Antique Music Box Gallery", accessed 18 Dec 2014.
^ "Wintergatan Marble Machine - A Feat of Both Music and Engineering",
indiebandguru.com, Retrieved March 3, 2016
9: The Musical Box Society Of Great Britain http://www.mbsgb.org.uk
An international society formed around 60 years ago, with the aims of
promoting the effective repair, restoration,conservation and education
of these early technologies where some examples can cross the
definiative threshold, where as a self playing instrument can justly
be considered an art form.
Bahl, Gilbert. Music Boxes: The Collector's Guide to Selecting,
Restoring and Enjoying New and Vintage Music Boxes. Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania: Running Press, 1993.
Bowers, Q. David. Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments.
ISBN 0-911572-08-2. Lanham, Maryland: Vestal Press, Inc., 1972.
Diagram Group. Musical Instruments of the World. New York: Facts on
Ganske, Sharon. Making Marvelous Music Boxes. New York: Sterling
Publishing Company, 1997.
Greenhow, Jean. Making Musical Miniatures. London: B T Batsford, 1979.
Hoke, Helen, and John Hoke. Music Boxes, Their Lore and Lure. New
York: Hawthorn Books, 1957.
Ord-Hume, Arthur W. J. G. (1973).
Clockwork Music. London: Allen &
Unwin. ISBN 978-0-04-789004-8.
Ord-Hume, Arthur W. J. G. The Musical Box: A Guide for Collectors.
ISBN 0-88740-764-1. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing
Reblitz, Arthur A. The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments.
ISBN 0-9705951-0-7. Woodsville, NH: Mechanical Music Press, 2001.
Reblitz, Arthur A., Q. David Bowers. Treasures of Mechanical Music.
ISBN 0-911572-20-1. New York: The Vestal Press, 1981.
Sadie, Stanley. ed. Musical Box. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians. ISBN 1-56159-174-2. MacMillan. 1980. Vol 12. P. 814.
Smithsonian Institution. History of Music Machines.
ISBN 0-87749-755-9. New York: Drake Publishers, 1975.
Templeton, Alec, as told to Rachael Bail Baumel. Alec Templeton's
Music Boxes. New York: Wilfred Funk, 1958.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Musical boxes.
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Musical-box". Encyclopædia
Britannica. 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Performance of Listen Thing and Pandora's Secret on a punched
paper-tape controlled music box (video)
Musical Box Society International Glossary of Terms
Audio of historical music boxes
Polyphon Music Box, made app. 1850
Mira Music Box - Sammy 1903
Mechanical Music Box - Auld Lang Syne
Mechanical Music from Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of
LP vinyl record: "The Concert Regina Music Box and the Symphonium"
(1977, Nostalgia Repertoire Records - Sonic Arts Corporation, 665
Harrison Street, San Francisco Ca. 94107, Curator: Leo de Gar Kulka,
Record No. RR 4771 Stereo.)
Mechanical musical instruments
American Piano Company
CPE Bach works
Plucked idiophones (lamellophones)
Idioglot (đàn môi, genggong, gogona, kubing, mukkuri)
Heteroglot (khomuz, kouxian, morsing)
With resonator (mbira)