From early man’s use of hollow logs to craft the first drums to the digital media we know and love today, our fascination with music has persisted throughout history. It’s truly a universal communicator with the ability to evoke great joy, humor, sorrow, and everything in between.
It was the desire to capture and recreate this wondrous medium that led to the birth of the music box. Of all the rare antiques collectors seek, music boxes provide an array of possibilities limited only by the imagination of their creators. From the most intricate singing bird boxes that fit in the palm of your hand to grand Orchestrions made to entertain large dance halls, the evolution of these mechanical marvels is a story of innovation that spans nearly five centuries.
So let’s explore how the music box came to be and discover how it developed into one of the most intriguing works of mechanized art ever made.
In The Beginning: The Carillon
It is believed that the first notions of creating self-playing music began with the carillon. This system of bells originated in 1510 in Flanders and was located in the bell towers of churches and government buildings to indicate the time of day, church services or other secular events. The system initially required a “ringer”, now known as a “carillonneur” or “carillonist”, to play a keyboard and pedalboard, with each stick-like key corresponding to a particular bell. These mechanisms contain a minimum of 23 bells, with the largest known being the 78-bell carillon located at Hyechon College in South Korea.
Round and Round It Goes: The Cylinder
It wasn’t until French bell founders Pieter and François Hemony cast the first fully tuned carillon in 1644 that the mechanism became a true musical instrument. The brothers created just over 50 carillons throughout the Low Countries, and those bells that exist today are still considered the clearest and purest sounds of all carillons.
While the position of a carillon player remains alive and well today, the desire to automate the instrument without having to rely on a musician led to the rise of the first cylinder mechanisms at this time. Since carillons resided within the belfries that also contained the town’s clock, it was a natural progression to merge the two mechanisms using a giant cylinder in order to achieve automated bell music that sounded at specific times of day.
This large cylinder, or drum, would contain pins that were placed in specific spots along the cylinder that corresponded to a system of levers and hammers, each with its own bell. The drum would be turned at an even tempo to achieve a pleasant melody. These cylinders and pins were often removable, and the task of the carillonist would be to replace or adjust the cylinders and pins to attain the desired song.
Having effectively achieved automated music, it wouldn’t be long before ingenuity would strike again. This time, in Switzerland.
Bringing Music Indoors: Switzerland
Switzerland has a prestigious and lengthy history of technical prowess, as even today the country is renowned for its amazingly precise timepieces. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the origination of the very first music box, historians agree that it was invented, circa 1770, and was small enough to fit in a pocket watch by utilizing many of the techniques and concepts of watchmaking.
The next brilliant mind we encounter in the evolution of the music box is Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a watchmaker located in Geneva that is credited with the tiniest of musical boxes, the singing bird box sometime in the mid-1780s. By this time, Droz became legendary, especially amongst royalty, for his astounding automaton creations which featured mechanized dolls that played diminutive musical instruments. With the advent of these miniaturized musical mechanisms, Droz built upon his knowledge of automaton to create a small snuffbox that contained a diminutive automaton bird. The inside would be fitted with a winding watch mechanism that operates a bellows and several cams. The bellows created the bird’s whistling, while the cams controlled the notes produced by the whistle and the motions of the bird.
The first singing bird boxes, which later became known as “tabatières” for their resemblance to snuffboxes, had fusée-driven movements that allowed for the birds to play longer and have a greater range of motion. In later examples of the 19th century, chain-driven movements accounted for the majority of bird box mechanisms. All of these miniature music boxes were typically created by two craftsmen: a watchmaker for the machinery and a jeweler for the case, as the finest and most prized examples were fashioned of precious metals, enamel, tortoiseshell and all manner of luxurious materials.
The Birth of an Industry
While Droz’s diminutive birds enchanted Europe’s nobility and high society, Swiss watchmaker Antoine Favre-Salomon was on his way to his own musical revelation. Salomon took the theories of the carillon and decided to replace the bells with small tuned metal strips to achieve, essentially, a miniaturized version of the mechanism. In 1796, his vision was realized, and the comb, and the music box we know today, was born.
The comb allowed not only music on a smaller scale, but it effectively allowed for a greater range and precision of sound. This advancement effectively gave rise to the cylinder music box industry. Switzerland remained the center of music box production throughout the invention’s prime, and the bustling business soon spread throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to America. In total, it’s estimated over 10,000 artisans were employed in the music box industry. Makers such as Nicole Frères, B.A. Bremond, Mermod Frères and Charles Paillard came on the scene, creating some of the most beautiful and prized cylinder boxes ever devised.
Paillard, in particular, made great advancements in cylinder music box quality and is credited with introducing the Sublime Harmonie. For years, music box makers searched unsuccessfully for a way to increase the volume of their music boxes without creating a harsh, tinny sound. In 1874, Paillard invented a way to do just that with the Sublime Harmonie, an invention that called for the use of two or more combs of equal scale, each tuned alike or with a slight intentional dissonance in order to provide a louder volume without harshness.
With this innovation, consumer demand for more depth and variety in sound became even greater, which lead to cylinders that comprised more pins and combs with over 300 teeth, which could hold far more notes than the 88-note piano keyboard. Not only that, but cylinders could now hold more songs and play uninterrupted. Other instruments began to be incorporated into the box’s mechanism, including drums, bells, mandolins and castanets, which paved the way for the interchangeable cylinder system. With the tremendous advances in sound quality and range, the cylinder mechanism could play a limitless array of music to suit every taste, and consumers could select the exact songs they wished to hear on their music boxes. The possibilities were endless.
Saving Space: The Disk
It seemed that the popularity of the cylinder was unstoppable until inspiration struck again the late 1880s in Leipzig, Germany. Seeing a way to make the music box even more convenient for customers, the Symphonion Musikwerke developed the interchangeable disk music box. The zinc or steel disks worked by the same principle of plucking a comb to create music. The difference was in the way the comb was plucked, with different makers creating disks of varying diameters and tooth size so that one maker’s disk could not be used on a competitor’s music box.
Compared to cylinders, disks were easier to manage and change, as well as cheaper to create. This allowed music boxes to be more affordable and therefore available to a wider audience. Also, firms could create these disks faster, giving consumers the chance to easily purchase the latest tunes from their favorite composers. Cylinder music boxes continued to have a strong following, but undoubtedly, the disk became the dominant means of at-home music entertainment. Companies such as Symphonion, Regina, Polyphon and a host of others, all based in either Germany or Switzerland with many having branches in the United States, controlled the music box scene.
…And The Hits Just Keep Coming
As is always the case, all good things must come to an end. By the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of the great music box makers had gone out of business as an array of ingenious inventions paved the way for even more change in the world of music. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented his iconic phonograph (and in 1885 the gramophone of Alexander Graham Bell), that not only reproduced sound, it could also record it. Later in the 19th century, the pianola, or player piano, furthered automated music by engineering a piano with an automated mechanism that utilized perforated paper rolls to control the actions of the instrument. Developing on that concept of paper rolls came the rise of the orchestrions. Companies such as Arburo of Hoboken, Belgium, created these magnificent machines that essentially took the place of entire bands by playing actual, stand-alone musical instruments. They possessed powerful motors, pipes and vacuums that played everything from organs and drums to triangles and accordions.
The final blows to the music box’s popularity came with the breakout of World War I in 1914 and the global impact of the Great Depression that lasted from 1929 through the late 1930s. Keeping in mind that the cost of even a basic model disk music box equated to approximately four-months’ salary for the average American worker, and it becomes clear why the once robust industry deteriorated.
From the golden age of the music box remains an incredible, albeit increasingly small number, of these fascinating mechanical relics. The finest examples that remain were well cared for and maintain a beautiful condition and unbelievable sound quality. Tough the zenith of the music box may have passed, their brilliance lives on with every note they play.
Watch and Listen to the Music Box Collection