Thursday, March 10, 2011

The automaton's cousin, mechanical music

This is an overdue post! Back in January I saw an exhibit of mechanical music at the Orlando science center. It was run and organized by some local members of the Music Box Society International, if I'm not mistaken, and the exhibit was their own collection and that of some of their co-members. It so happens that I listened to a ton of mechanical music while writing Magic Under Glass and I MAY have just been the most excited under-30 person they ever had visit their exhibit.

Because this exhibit was like something out of my dreams. Dozens of music boxes and band organs and player pianos and old phonographs and they played so many of them! I was practically gasping aloud with delight! No, not practically. I was. Let's be honest.

This is what I find so utterly fascinating about mechanical music: it was the first sound to be captured and preserved and able to be played again and again, precisely the same (well, nearly so, putting aside the fact that machines can degrade) each time. Audio recordings only go back to the late 19th century and did not capture sound as it was actually heard. They are scratchy and tinny and of course they have their own charm. But still. You can't go back and hear Jenny Lind sing in the 1840s but you can still hear her contemporary, the 1840s music box. Sure, it's quite different, but a rather haunting sound.

Before mechanical music, those with the means could buy an instrument but they also needed a musician in the family, which is why girls who could play the piano or whatever were quite valued. How nice to have music in the house! But with mechanical music you could have music anytime, no skills necessary. Early music boxes only played one song but at some point, the disc changer came along, where you could actually buy large metal discs with punched out holes that played different tunes. At this exhibit they even had an automatic changer that would play a number of discs in a row, so you could crank it up (I think? my memory is starting to fail me, but it wasn't electric) at a party and play a "set".

Of course, many people still couldn't afford mechanical music in the home, but public establishments certainly jumped on the new technology as it became more affordable, and electricity came along so now you could have a coin operated device with no need to crank. Many of these player pianos and machines also made fascinating use of electric lighting and were beautifully lit with stained glass windows and such, and when they are plugged in and turned on they start up with a magnificent THRUM that no modern device in your house can match.

Mechanical music still pops up in our modern life occasionally, usually in its most elaborate form, the band organ or carousel organ, many of which are still preserved in vintage carousels or at fairs. I remember seeing band organs as a kid a couple of times and finding them fascinating in that undefinable way one might call "uncanny"...just like automata and abandoned buildings and Daguerrotypes.

If you'd like to hear some mechanical music, there are tons of videos on Youtube, or there is a wonderful introduction of downloadable mp3s here: Machines vs. Music: Mechanized Music MP3s. My favorite is "Trees" or "Dizzy Dittons".


  1. *Is agog at the awesome* Holy Jebus, I want one.

  2. Oh, man, I spent hours on Ebay dreaming when I got home...

  3. Just checking, but you've listened to Conlon Nancarrow's stuff, right? I discovered him via an Oxford American music CD years ago. He composed for player piano and I really, really love his stuff.

    ( )

  4. I have not! Fascinating...I'll look into it!