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Music Box History

What Is a Music Box?

A music box is an automatic instrument. Using pins on a rotating cylinder, each strike of a pin produces a musical note. Music boxes have existed for centuries, producing sweet melodies that last around 30 seconds to a minute.

Music Box History

Originally, music boxes were developed from snuff boxes in the 1700s. Their early name was carillons à musique – French meaning ‘chimes of music’. Most music boxes were built to sit neatly on a table top; however some were as large as large pieces of furniture. Typically, music boxes were clockwork operated, built and produced by watchmakers.

For the first hundred years or so of music box production, the majority of music boxes came from Switzerland. Perhaps, given Switzerland’s reputation for fine watchmaking, this should be no surprise. In 1815, the first company dedicated to music box production was created. While these factories existed in Switzerland, Germany, and Bohemia, by the end of the 19th century, there were even factories in the United States dedicated to music box production.

Music Box History

The cylinders at the core of the music box were usually crafted from metal. In some more expensive models, the cylinders could be removed. This allowed different cylinders – containing different melodies – to be used in their place. Some models were even capable of playing continuously for three hours because of their unique design.

Toward the end of the 18th century, the cylinder design began being replaced with a design that used metal disks to create melodies. Large pre-phonograph music machines existed in several forms, designed to sound as though an entire orchestra was placed within the box.

As the 20th century developed, music boxes were replaced mostly by player pianos. Player pianos were larger and were capable of playing a larger assortment of melodies than music boxes of previous centuries. Beyond this, gramophones also gained significant popularity due to their distinct ability to play back voices.

Today, music boxes are small, novelty gifts. Usually, they play familiar pop songs, operated by a small hand crank.

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