The Evolution of the Marvelous Music Box

Nicole Frères "triple signed" cylinder music box features the company name on the song card, mechanism and comb. Circa 1880. Nicole Frères "triple signed" cylinder music box features the company name on the song card, mechanism and comb. Circa 1880.

The universal language of music has the ability to evoke great joy, humor, sorrow and practically every emotion in-between. Humanity’s fascination with music has endured throughout history, from the first drums fashioned out of hollow logs to today’s numerous genres widely accessible via the click of a mouse.

The music box’s innovation was born from the desire to capture and recreate music without instruments. 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, handheld “singing bird” boxes 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. Read on to discover how the music box came to be and 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 dates to 1510 Flanders, and was typically found in the bell towers of churches and government buildings to indicate the time of day, church services or secular village 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 Daejeon University of Science and Technology 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 Hemony Brothers created just over 50 carillons throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and those that still exist today are considered to create clearest and purest sounds of all carillons ever made.

While carillonists still exist today, relying on a musician to play the carillon’s bells became inconvenient over time, leading to the innovation of the first automated cylinder mechanisms. Since carillons and large clocks both resided within the same church belfries throughout Europe, merging the two mechanisms with a giant automated cylinder was a natural progression.

The large cylinder — called a “drum” — contained pins corresponding to a system of levers and hammers connected to bells. Turning the drum at an even tempo rang the bells, producing a pleasant melody. These cylinders and pins were often removable, and the task of the carillonist evolved to replace and adjust the cylinders and pins.

Having effectively achieved automated music, it wouldn’t be long before ingenuity would strike again — in Switzerland.

Bringing Music Indoors: Switzerland

Nicole Frères "triple signed" cylinder music box, interior. The cylinder is accompanied by bells, a drum and castanets, and can play eight songs on a single cylinder. Nicole Frères "triple signed" cylinder music box, interior. The cylinder is accompanied by bells, a drum and castanets, and can play eight songs on a single cylinder.

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 origins of the very first music box, historians agree that it was invented around 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 in Geneva credited with creating the tiniest of music boxes, the singing bird box, sometime in the mid-1780s. By this time, Jaquet-Droz became legendary, especially among royalty, for his astounding automaton creations featuring mechanized dolls that played diminutive musical instruments. With the advent of these miniaturized musical mechanisms, Jaquet-Droz built upon his knowledge of automaton to create a small snuffbox containing a minute automaton bird. The inside was fitted with a winding watch mechanism that operates 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 renowned Charles Bruguier created this rare, early Swiss fusée singing bird box, circa 1860. The renowned Charles Bruguier created this rare, early Swiss fusée singing bird box, circa 1860.

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 Jaquet-Droz’s tiny 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 created music on a smaller scale, effectively allowing for greater range and precision of sound. This advancement 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.

Swiss interchangeable cylinder box, circa 1880. Swiss interchangeable cylinder box, circa 1880.

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.

This cylinder music box is accompanied by additional cylinders, allowing the owner to play any tune they liked. This cylinder music box is accompanied by additional cylinders, allowing the owner to play any tune they liked.

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

Symphonion's upright disk music box, circa 1890. The most advanced player of its time, the disk allowed for even more musical selections to be played with ease. Symphonion's upright disk music box, circa 1890. The most advanced player of its time, the disk allowed for even more musical selections to be played with ease.

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 made music boxes more affordable and 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.

Close up of the Symphonion disk music box within its artfully constructed upright cabinet. Close up of the Symphonion disk music box within its artfully constructed upright cabinet.

…And The Hits Just Keep Coming

The Arburo Orchestrion was once a fixture in bustling dance halls, cafés and fairgrounds throughout Belgium and the Netherlands in the early 20th century. The Orchestrion effectively replaced the need for an entire band by playing actual, stand-alone instruments. The Arburo Orchestrion was once a fixture in bustling dance halls, cafés and fairgrounds throughout Belgium and the Netherlands in the early 20th century. The Orchestrion effectively replaced the need for an entire band by playing actual, stand-alone instruments.

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, but 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. Building 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 Orchestrion operated using paper rolls, like earlier player pianos, to direct the instruments within. The mechanism contained a powerful motor, pipes and vacuum to play the instruments, creating a breathtaking level of sound. The Orchestrion operated using paper rolls, like earlier player pianos, to direct the instruments within. The mechanism contained a powerful motor, pipes and vacuum to play the instruments, creating a breathtaking level of sound.

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 their beautiful condition and unbelievable sound quality. Though the zenith of the music box may have passed, their brilliance lives on with every note they play.

Click here to view our current collection of rare and important musical mechanisms.

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