Music box

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Swiss reel music box

The music box is a self-playing mechanical musical instrument . There is also the music box , a mechanical clock that plays a melody.

There are two types of music boxes:

  1. Roll Boxes (Engl. Cylinder Music Boxes )
  2. Record music boxes (English Disc Music Boxes )
Music box with rotatable figure; to the left the mechanics

The invention of the music box goes back to the Geneva watchmaker Antoine Favre-Salomon , who in 1796 applied the principle of the sounding steel tongue for a music- making pocket watch (this is where the origin of the term “game clock ” is suggested).

The principle of the sounding steel tongue

Each reed had to be individually made, tuned and then screwed onto the reed bar. That was quite a laborious job. A few years later it was possible to make 4 to 5 reeds from a piece of sheet steel, which was a big improvement. These music boxes are called segment music boxes. By developing special milling systems, a Geneva manufacturer succeeded in 1810 in making a play comb from a piece of sheet steel.

The play comb or clay comb is a steel comb with tooth lengths that are graduated from short to long. The prongs are called clay tongues. Each tongue is tuned to a specific tone. A rotating cylinder (the clay roller), which is studded with steel pins, tears these tongues and makes them vibrate, whereby a certain melody is created through the arrangement of the pins. The tone comb usually has several tongues of the same tone in order to prevent the tongue of the desired tone, which is still swinging out, from having to be torn again with the same tones in rapid succession and an undesired sound being created by touching the steel pin.

While most mechanical musical instruments have sound generators that are also found in hand-played musical instruments, the tone comb is a sound generator specially designed for mechanical musical instruments.

The delicately playing works began a triumphal march around the world. They are available in numerous designs: as a music box in a wooden box, as music boxes, built into jewelry boxes or in boxes with dancing dolls, etc.

Swiss music boxes were widely used and exported all over the world. A major disadvantage of the drum music boxes, however, was their limited musical repertoire. Usually a reel plays 6 pieces of music. Since the reels were not interchangeable, if you were tired of the music you had to buy a new music box.

Record music boxes

In Leipzig- Gohlis, Paul Lochmann invented the record box in 1886/1887 . This created competition to the drum music boxes, because this invention combined the advantage of the interchangeability of the melodies with significantly lower production costs. The fabrication of a sheet metal plate was a lot easier and cheaper than the time-consuming pinning of a can roller.

A special technique made it possible to punch hooks in round steel plates. All hooks arranged on a radius are assigned to a tone. The hooks drive a sharp-toothed wheel for each note, which in turn tears the associated tongue of the comb and thus generates the melody. In this way, the comb could lie horizontally and was also somewhat protected from damage, including defective plates.

The records could be exchanged more easily than the cylinders of a cylinder music box, so that a collection of records could be purchased for a record music box in order to listen to different pieces of music. However, unlike a cylinder, a record can only play one melody.

Record music boxes, like the later first gramophones, had strong spring mechanisms as a drive; the speed was kept constant with a centrifugal governor. The elevator was carried out with an attachable crank. Often there was a control lever that could be used to switch between single and repeated playback.

The record music box, like the cylinder music box, is a musical instrument and only at that time a forerunner of the gramophones , which are playback devices.

Record music boxes were mainly produced in Germany and the USA. Switzerland started the development a little later. In terms of quantity, it could not keep up with the nations mentioned above, but it did further develop the quality of the instrument through some ingenious patents. In the age of the beginning industrialization - from around 1880 - these record music boxes were manufactured in hundreds of thousands and offered so cheaply that they were affordable for everyone.

The German Empire developed - in addition to the United States  - the most important export market for mechanical instruments.

Reel music boxes


In the mostly English-language literature on mechanical musical instruments there are many references to the dating of drum music boxes. The attempt is made here to present this information in a summarized manner.

The invention of the drum music box is attributed to Antoine Favre from Geneva , who in 1796 installed a game mechanism in a tin box based on a tongue comb and pinwheel. In the following years, toys of this type were built into signet rings, pocket watches, snuff boxes , toiletry sets and, in a larger form, in the bases of table clocks. It was not until around 1820 that drum music boxes were built in the shape they are known today. They can be recognized by their simple case, which is not veneered. The comb does not consist of one piece, but of individually screwed teeth and later from groups of two to five teeth. The one-piece comb was only found sporadically before 1820, but over time it has increasingly replaced the comb made up of individual teeth or groups of teeth.

From around 1850 only the one-piece comb was installed. The drum music boxes from this period are characterized by small housings that are hardly larger than the musical mechanism, they usually have four, at most six pieces of music. The base plate is always made of brass. The industrial production of drum music boxes began around 1840, which means that larger numbers were produced and, as a result of competition, improvements were made - such as bells and drums . At the beginning this "additional instrumentation" was installed hidden under the mechanism, later it was mostly visible behind the cylinder. From 1870 the polished brass base plate was replaced by a ribbed cast iron plate that was painted with bronze or silver paint.

Probably the most well-known manufacturers of drum music boxes were the Nicole brothers (Nicole Frères). From 1815 to 1903 they produced drum music boxes of consistently high quality, all of which are marked with the name Nicole Frères in the comb and have a serial number on the base plate. This serial number makes it easy to date Nicole Frères' drum music boxes. Unfortunately, no other manufacturer provides such precise data on their production.

Serial number to Year to
19,000 1839
25,000 1843
27,000 1845
29,000 1847
35,000 1860
38,000 1861
40,000 1863
41,000 1870
43,000 1872
44,000 1880
46,000 1882
50,000 1888
52,000 1903

An aid to dating can also be opera or music guides who indicate the time of the first performance of the respective work. About this z. B. in the case of opera and operetta titles, the earliest possible year of construction of the music box can be concluded.

History and technology

Work of a reel music box

The pin roller , moved by an independent engine, became more and more popular over time. Ever larger music boxes were built that had not just one but up to four spring mechanisms. This greatly increased the running time of the music boxes per elevator. Pin rollers also have the advantage that they can be moved sideways. This enables multiple melodies to be recorded on the same roller.

There are cylinders on which up to 20 melodies are donated. However, such a large number is an exception. The number of pins required varies depending on the size and diameter of a cylinder from 100 to 30,000, even 40,000 pieces.

The so-called pianoforte music box was a clever innovation. Around the year 1840 these music boxes with two combs were introduced. One comb sounds loud while the other sounds soft. This was achieved by making the tongues of the piano comb thinner, making them sound softer and quieter, and because you have two separate combs, one can be sealed off more tightly than the other with pins of the same length. The combs were played alternately, which resulted in remarkable sound effects. If the piece of music is particularly loud, both combs can be torn at the same time. A more elaborate method to achieve a similar effect is to use longer pins for one comb for the forte passages than for the piano passages. Because the Forte pens are longer, the tone sounds later; to correct this, these pins were bent forward. A big advantage is that every tongue can sound soft or loud. Ultimately, however, the two-comb system caught on because it was a much simpler method.

Soon additional instruments were built into the music boxes. The installation of an additional bell mechanism was popular . The bells were controlled by a separate comb - also via the roller pins. The combination with a harmonica was also successful . These models had a penetrating tongue section in the middle of the clay comb. This required a special fan, which was driven by the same spring mechanism that also turned the pin roller ( scoop bellows ). A zither effect that can be switched on and off was very often incorporated. For this purpose, a special paper roll was pressed very lightly onto the clay comb using a corresponding mechanism. This can be recognized by a metal strip over the clay comb. There were obviously no limits to the spirit of invention. In the end, whole orchestral music boxes were built. Of course, the idea of ​​“making the puppets dance” also came up. After inserting coins, little dolls danced in a circle to the melody.

Around 1850 the first music boxes with exchangeable rollers came on the market. This gave the buyer the opportunity to order further reels with new melodies at a later date. These interchangeable rollers were made separately for a certain music box and also delivered with it. Interchangeability with the rollers of other music boxes was not given. The company Mermod Frères was mainly concerned with exchangeable rollers . After all, it was important to her that the reels could be played in all music boxes of the same type. The system of the revolver music box was very sophisticated . Similar to a cartridge chamber, three, four or six rollers were arranged in a circle. Once the six melodies per reel had played, the mechanism turned one reel further.

Music boxes with two cylinders were also produced - the manufacture of such duplex boxes required a particularly high level of precision. The so-called Plerodinique music box was invented in order to be able to play melodies whose length required several revolutions of a cylinder . Here the cylinder is divided in the middle (actually two rollers). The lateral displacement of the two roller parts does not take place simultaneously, but at a certain time interval. One reel plays, the other is moved sideways in the meantime. Melodies with up to six rounds can be played without interruption.

More examples of the numerous inventions every time:

  • The so-called “parachute”, which immediately blocks the plant and brings it to a standstill if a gear breaks. (Jacot's safety check - patented Sept. 22, 1886)
  • The mechanical speed controller for a stepless change in speed.

Large music boxes were manufactured in tens of thousands, smaller ones in hundreds of thousands for customers in many countries around the world. Customers in England , Russia , America , the Empire of China , India and the Orient were among the buyers of the coveted Swiss music boxes. Of course, Chinese or Indian pieces of music were donated to the rollers or the mood was adjusted accordingly.

Later musical works - especially the later record music boxes - were built in coin-operated machines in order to set them up in waiting rooms and public bars. They were the forerunners of the later ( record ) jukeboxes of the 1950s and 1960s.

With the electric pianos and orchestrions, but especially with the advent of the phonograph , the great music box industry collapsed around 1923. However, it survived the crisis of the 1930s - albeit on a smaller scale - so that music boxes are still made today.

In the same place where music boxes were made for princes, emperors and kings in the past, music boxes are still made in large numbers and selections. Sainte-Croix in Switzerland is still a term for many enthusiastic customers all over the world.


Clay comb

The reeds

With the first music boxes, the individual steel tongues were placed side by side on a circuit board. Later several reeds were put together to form comb sections. As early as 1814, Lecoultre made the clay comb from one piece. This steel comb made assembly easier. In addition, a cleaner and stronger tone could be achieved. The one-piece comb prevailed after 1830. The length of the reeds increased with the lower pitch. The tongues for bass tones were so unwieldy that the musical mechanisms would have had to be placed in large boxes. One remedy was to solder lead weights under the reeds, which meant that their length could be significantly shortened and the desired bass notes could still be produced.

The dampers

If a tongue slipped off a pen during regular play, it would vibrate as intended. With two consecutive identical notes (= pins on the roller) it could happen that shortly after the first pin a second pin approached the still vibrating tongue. When the vibrating tongue and pencil came together, there was an unpleasant scratching noise. This unpleasant scratching noise could be avoided by gently bringing the tongue to a standstill when the second pen approached the still vibrating tongue.

The so-called damper was used for this. This usually consisted of a fine and quite flexible wire (damper spring made of flat steel), which was inserted into a hole on the underside of the tongue and secured with a pin. The reeds for the high notes could only vibrate briefly anyway, so no dampers were necessary for this. Often three quarters of all reeds had mutes. The dampers with a wire spring (steel spring) appeared around the year 1815.

With the tiny reeds of miniature music boxes, drilling holes for inserting damper springs, which had to be extremely thin here, was hardly possible. Small strips of poultry feathers were cut out and attached to the underside of the tongues with sealing wax . Today, narrow, thin plastic strips are usually stuck under the reeds as dampers.


A hand crank drive, for example, serves as the drive, but mostly spring mechanisms have been and are used. In isolated cases, two barrels are connected in series (double the number of possible revolutions) or connected in parallel (double the force). Simple spring mechanism music boxes do not have a lock with which the drive can be stopped or started. They start to run as soon as the spring is sufficiently wound and stop as soon as it has relaxed. As a result, the game often begins or ends in the middle of the melody. With better models, the work is stopped after the melody (s) have been played once. The nib is usually calculated in such a way that the work can play again without having to be wound up again beforehand. This is e.g. B. important for clocks that have a built-in music box that is always triggered at a certain time (about every full hour).


In order to wind the spring mechanism of a music box, keys with a square socket (winding key as in clocks) were initially used, and from 1875 a lever that could be moved back and forth (ratchet winder) was used. Cuddly toys that play music often have a winding thread with a pearl at the end.

Spring mechanism drives require an escapement , but with roller play mechanisms it usually only consists of an aerodynamic brake, the vestibule.


A vestibule is usually used so that the wound spring only relaxes slowly. The desired inhibition occurs here via air resistance. The vestibule is operated via a gear mechanism at high speed (usually 2,000 revolutions per melody of 50 seconds, i.e. around 2,400 rpm). A distinction is made between rigid and adjustable wind blades. The adjustable wind blades are held in their position by springs that are in equilibrium with the centrifugal force that occurs during rotation. During the rotary movement, the wind blades, which are firmly connected to the lever arms, are pressed outwards by centrifugal force against the spring action. If the main drive spring is at first strongly tensioned after it has been pulled up, so that it would like to bring the pin roller into a very rapid rotation, then the wind blades are strongly pulled apart. The then high air resistance provides a strong braking effect, so that the pin roller does not rotate much faster than when the mainspring is already very relaxed.

The vestibule of today's music boxes almost always only has rigid wind blades, so the playing speed decreases continuously as the mainspring relaxes.

An exception are modern music boxes, in which the playback speed is regulated by a centrifugal regulator : The weights of the regulator are made of relatively soft rubber and are asymmetrically attached to the axis of rotation with bars. Depending on the speed of rotation, the asymmetrical connection means that the weights touch a concentrically arranged braking path with more or less pressure - the speed remains fairly constant.

Pin roller

Originally, a thin brass tube was used as a pin roller. After marking, the individual pin holes were drilled and the pins were press-fitted. Around 1815 it was found that filling the interior with a cement compound was cheaper. It consisted of resin , tar and stone dust. With it, the pens could be secured against falling out. The music box also got a fuller sound.

The player

The pin rollers could be equipped with four to twelve melodies in several rows of pins. To change the melody, the roller had to be moved lengthways. For this purpose, the play plate was used on some models. For example, a pointer was placed on the number 5. The roller was shifted sideways by means of a corresponding mechanism. Then the fifth melody was played.

Pins in several rows

In order to be able to accommodate several melodies on the roller, several rows of pins were often provided. Often there were eight to twelve rows of pens, sometimes even more. After moving the cylinder longitudinally, another row of pens could be scanned and thus another melody could be obtained.

Helical pin

In the case of the screw-shaped pinning, the roller was continuously moved lengthways during the game, guided by a screw thread, so that melodies could be played that required more than one rotation of the roller. However, these rollers were relatively rare.

Music boxes with several rollers (Plerodinique music box)

With the intention of reproducing long pieces of music, two reels were also provided in which the melody passed continuously from one reel to the other after each row of pens had been played. While one roller provided the music, the other was shifted lengthways. One spoke here of the Plerodinique music box. In addition, there were revolver devices (revolver roller music box) for four or six cylinders. After playing a reel, another reel was automatically brought into the scanning position.

The case

Small grandfather clock made of brass. The alarm function sets the built-in roller mechanism in motion.

The housing has a decisive influence on the sound of a music box - the sound comb alone is hardly able to emit sound waves. The heavy metal block on which it is mounted to reduce damping and to avoid mechanical coupling of the reeds is therefore mounted on a wooden wall, which in turn forms a soundboard, as in the case of string instruments. Often the wooden boxes contained resonance chambers to improve the reproduction of the low frequencies.

The first cases for music boxes were quite simple and stable wooden boxes without decorations. You should mainly protect the mechanism and not contribute to the embellishment themselves. The cases were narrow, and the mechanical equipment filled the whole case. The control levers protruded from the housing at the front. The springs were wound with large watch keys. Around 1835 the levers were on the inside and closed off from the outside by a flap.

In 1840, some manufacturers began to decorate their cases. They adorned the lids with inlays, and a glass plate with a wooden frame covered the mechanism inside the box. This was soon replaced by a wood-framed glass plate with hinges that only covered the mechanism. The adjusting elements remained uncovered so that they could be easily reached. Around 1860 the case was given an even more ornate decoration. Inlay work became more valuable and richly decorated brass fittings were used.

Models of music boxes

Interchangeable rollers

Music box with 5 interchangeable rollers

Around the year 1850 music boxes were brought out, the rollers of which could be replaced by hand. These rollers were made separately for a certain music box and also delivered with it. Interchangeability with the rollers of other music boxes was not given. The company Mermod Frères was mainly concerned with exchangeable rollers. After all, it was important to her that the reels could be played in all music boxes of the same type.

Music boxes with two combs

Music boxes with two combs were introduced around 1840. One comb sounds loud while the other sounds soft. This was achieved by installing two combs whose tongues have different mass-spring force ratios. The combs were played alternately, which resulted in remarkable sound effects. If the piece of music is particularly loud, both combs can be torn at the same time. In order to achieve an exactly simultaneous response, a particularly precise pin was necessary. These music boxes were also called Piano Forte music boxes (piano = soft, forte = loud). Well-known manufacturers were the companies Nicole Frères, Lecoultre, Langdorff, Ducommon-Girod.

Music boxes with drums and additional bells

Around 1850, the vocal combs were increasingly supplemented with bells, which mostly had a half-shell shape. They were placed in the music box on the edge of the base plate. Sometimes there were up to 12 or more bells. Small drums were also added. The bells and drums had more of a show character. In terms of sound, they were of secondary importance.

Harmonium music boxes

Another additional feature of the music box was a small harmonium with reeds. The main spring also used a small crank to drive a scoop bellows , which provided the pressure wind for the reeds . The small harmonium mechanism was in the middle of the cylinder. In addition to the pens, there were also bridges on the pen roller in this area, as the sound had to be paused for as long as desired. There are also a few music boxes with a small flute mechanism instead of the harmonium. It was not uncommon for long bass flutes to be replaced by penetrating tongues. With these additional works one tried to realize a small orchestra. One speaks therefore of orchestral music boxes.

Music box with coin slot

Business-minded restaurant owners also came up with the idea of ​​making money by playing music from music boxes. So a corresponding coin slot was constructed. After inserting the money, the reel began to turn. They were the first early forerunners of the record music boxes of the 1950 / 1960s.

Revolver music boxes

Revolver music box with 6 reels each with 4 melodies

The system of the revolver music box was very sophisticated. Similar to a cartridge chamber, three, four or six rollers were arranged in a circle. Once the six melodies per reel had played, the mechanism turned one reel further.

Duplex music boxes

Music boxes with two cylinders were also made. A very special level of precision was required to manufacture such duplex boxes.

Plérodiénique music boxes

The so-called Plérodiénique music box was invented in order to be able to play melodies, the length of which required several rotations of a cylinder. Here the cylinder is divided in the middle - actually there are two rollers. The lateral displacement of the two roller parts now does not happen at the same time, but at a certain time interval. One reel plays, the other is moved sideways in the meantime. Melodies can be played back up to six times without interruption. This system was patented in 1882 by A. Jeanrenaud for the Paillard company.

Sound documents from a perforated record box

The Blue Danube Waltz on polyphonic , length 58 seconds

Silent Night, Holy Night on polyphon , length 55 seconds


The most important manufacturers of cylinder music boxes:

  • L'Epée, Sainte-Suzanne (Doubs)
  • Langdorff
  • Ducommun-Girod
  • Lecoultre
  • Baker troll
  • Mermod Frères
  • Nicole Frères
  • Paillard
  • BA Brémond
  • Reuge SA, Sainte-Croix , Switzerland , the only manufacturer in the world who still produces a roller program from 22 to 144 tons, the production of 18-ton rollers was discontinued at the end of 2003
  • Rzebitschek, Prague
  • Olbrich, Vienna
  • Sankyo Seiki Mfg. Co., Japan, since 2005: Nihon Densan Sankyō

The most important manufacturers of record music boxes:

Music box production in western Switzerland

The manufacture of music boxes in French- speaking Switzerland was influenced by the watchmaking tradition there. The raw works were manufactured in factories, while the completion was often done at home. The first factories were built in Sainte-Croix around 1875, and home work could continue to exist for around a hundred years.

In the publishing system taken over by watchmaking, the workers specialized in certain procedural steps. The blanks produced in the factories consisted of a base plate (plate), the drive mechanism and the raw roller (cylinder).

Using a musical arrangement as a template, the engraver (piqueurs) determined the position of the individual pencils that produce the notes by plucking. With the help of a dividing device, the engraver had to make several thousand markings on a roller, with the traces of the individual melodies only a few tenths of a millimeter next to each other. With around 450 marks per hour, an engraver needed several days to engrave a cylinder.

The perforators (perceuses or goupilleuses) used simple machines to drill holes in the positions marked by the piercers, into which the pins could then be inserted. The work carried out by women was paid at 20 cents an hour around 1900.

For the subsequent tuning of the clay combs you needed trained ears. In the pre-assembly (poseurs) the combs were fitted to the boards and readjusted by the inspectors (justifieurs). The mechanics (remounters) put the spring in the spring housing and made the mechanism operational. During the final inspection (appointment only) it was checked whether the play mechanisms function properly.

Music boxes on Christmas markets

Giant music box at the Osnabrück Christmas market

In some Christmas markets , oversized music boxes with figures are displayed. The largest of these Christmas music boxes can be found at the Osnabrück Christmas market every year during Advent .


  • The Museum for Music Automatons in Seewen SO , Switzerland, shows music boxes and record boxes made in Switzerland as one of the focal points of the collection in the permanent exhibition "Switzerland - the land of sound pioneers".
  • The Speelklok Museum in Utrecht , the Netherlands, has a large collection of music boxes and clocks from several centuries.


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Web links

Commons : Music boxes  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Music box  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. U.S. Patent 5,703,305, issued December 30, 1997 to Sankyo Seiki Mfg. Co. Japan
  2. Handelszeitung from November 21, 2011: The last music box manufacturer in Switzerland
  3. ^ Museums with mechanical musical instruments in Switzerland