A musical box (UK usage; music box in US English) is a 19th century automatic musical instrument that produces sounds by the use of a set of pins placed on a revolving cylinder or disc so as to strike the tuned teeth of a steel comb. They were developed from musical snuff boxes of the 18th century and called carillons à musique. Some of the more complex boxes also have a tiny drum and small bells, in addition to the metal comb. Alec Templeton, an avid collector of music boxes and a professional concert musician, once noted that the tone of a musical box is unlike that of any musical instrument (although it is best described as somewhere between the timbres of an mbira).
The original snuff boxes were tiny containers which could fit into a gentleman's waistcoat pocket. The musical boxes could have any size from that of a hat box to a large piece of furniture. Most of them were tabletop specimens though. They were usually powered by clockwork and originally produced by artisan watchmakers. For most of the 19th century, the bulk of musical box production was concentrated in Switzerland, building upon a strong watchmaking tradition. The first musical box factory was opened there in 1815 by Jérémie Recordon and Samuel Junod. There were also a few manufacturers in Bohemia and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, some of the European makers had opened factories in the United States.
The cylinders were normally made of metal and powered by a spring. In some of the costlier models, the cylinders could be removed to change melodies, thanks to an invention by Paillard in 1862, which was perfected by Metert of Geneva in 1879. In some exceptional models, there were four springs, to provide continuous play for up to three hours.
The very first boxes at the end of the 18th century made use of metal disks. The switchover to cylinders seems to have been complete after the Napoleonic wars. In the last decades of the 19th century, however, mass-produced models such as the Polyphon and others all made use of interchangeable metal disks instead of cylinders. The cylinder-based machines rapidly became a minority.
The term "musical box" is also applied to clockwork devices where a removable metal disk or cylinder was used only in a "programming" function without producing the sounds directly by means of pins and a comb. Instead, the cylinder (or disk) worked by actuating bellows and levers which fed and opened pneumatic valves which activated a modified wind instrument or plucked the chords on a modified string instrument. Some devices could do both at the same time and were often combinations of player pianos and musical boxes, such as the Orchestrion.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, most musical boxes were gradually replaced by player pianos, which were louder and more versatile and melodious, when kept tuned, and by the smaller gramophones which had the advantage of playing back voices. Escalating labour costs increased the price and further reduced volume. Now modern automation is helping bring music box prices back down.
Collectors prize surviving musical boxes from the 19th century and the early 20th century as well as new music boxes being made today in several countries (see “Evolving Box Production”, below). The cheap, small windup music box movements (including the cylinder and comb and the spring) to add a bit of music to mass-produced jewelry boxes and novelty items are now produced in countries with low labour costs.
Many kinds of musical box movements are available to the home craft person, locally or through online retailers.
14th century: In Flanders, an ingenious bell ringer invents a cylinder with pins which operates cams, which then hit the bells.
1780: The mechanical singing bird is invented by the Jaquet-Droz brothers, clockmakers from La Chaux-de-Fonds. In 1848, the manufacturing of the singing birds is improved by Blaise Bontems in his Parisian workshop, to the point where it has remained unchanged to this day. Barrel organs become more popular.
1796: Antoine Favre, a clockmaker from Geneva, replaces the bells by combs with pre tuned metallic notes, which produce more varied and more precise sounds. Numerous musical objects are produced.
1811: The first musical boxes are produced in Sainte-Croix; an industry which surpasses the watchmaking and lace industries, and rapidly brings renown to the town. At this time, the musical-box industry represents 10% of Switzerland’s export.
1865 Charles Reuge, a watchmaker from the Val-de-Travers, settles in Sainte-Croix and begins making pocket watches with musical movements.
1870: A German inventor creates a musical box with discs, therefore allowing an easier and more frequent change of tunes. It is also the golden years of automata. Already known in Egypt, they will be improved to become real works of art.
1877: Thomas Edison invents the phonograph, which has important consequences for the musical-box industry, especially around the end of the century.
1892: Gustave Brachhausen, who had been involved with the manufacturer of Polyphon disk musical boxes in Germany, sails for America to establish the Regina Music Box Company in New Jersey. Regina, whose boxes are renowned among collectors for their tone, becomes a success and some 100,000 are sold before sales cease in 1921.
Early 20th century: The invention of the phonograph, the First World War and the economic crisis in the 20’s bring down Sainte-Croix’s main industry and make the luxury musical box completely disappear.
Between the two world wars most of the Swiss companies converted to the manufacture of other products requiring precise mechanical parts. Some went back to making watches, others were eventually responsible for the famous Bolex movie cameras and the Hermes typewriters. Some simply sold out to Reuge.
Located near Lake Neuchâtel, Reuge is one of the last of the Swiss survivors making musical boxes of all sizes and shapes, with or without automatons in a modern style with clear acrylic sides to see the mechanical operation. They have in a sense branched out widely from their original cylinder offerings since they now also offer traditional looking musical boxes with removable metal disks for around a 1,000 euros, with each disk costing in the neighborhood of 14 euros. The higher range boxes with removable cylinders and small assorted tables made of fine woods can cost up to 34,000 euros and about an equivalent number of US dollars. They also sell several models of clear acrylic paperweights with a musical box movement inside, for a minimum of about 45 euros. They have, however, discontinued the smaller movements. Old Reuge music boxes are worth thousands of dollars.
Sankyo Seiki In Japan started up in the aftermath of WWII, using the latest in automation. Modern production methods resulted in reasonable prices, producing company growth. Sankyo started with small movements, introduced 50-note movements by the late 1970s, and in 2006 is producing disc boxes playing discs as large as 16” (with two 80-note combs and reminiscent of the “Mira”) and are also working on a dual-cylinder 100-note movement. Sankyo now offers a wide variety of musical boxes in Japan, and supplies movements to many other manufacturers and distributors. Some of these sell them retail (even online) to hobbyists for as low as 3 euros each. Sankyo Seiki bills itself as the biggest manufacturer of musical boxes in the world, and advertises that it controls 50% of the market. Recently, it has started selling licences for its musical-box tunes to cellular phone companies, for use as ring tones. The company is an industrial concern which also makes magnetic and hologram card readers, appliance components, industrial robots and miniature motors of all kinds.
The Porter Music Box company of Vermont produces steel disc musical boxes in several formats. They offer clockwork, spring wound models as well as electric ones. They stand out by their continuing production of discs, with a selection of about a thousand tunes. The discs can also be played on many antique musical boxes bearing the Polyphon and Regina brand names.
The small 18-note musical movements are now being made almost exclusively in countries with low labour costs such as China and Taiwan. Many of these productions are used in mobiles, children's musical toys, and jewelry boxes.
In Switzerland, coin-operated musical boxes, usually capable of playing several tunes, were installed in places such as train stations and amusement parks. Some of the models had a mechanism for automatically changing the metal disks. These were, in a sense, the precursors to jukebox. However, they soon disappeared from their intended venues and were displaced by the jukebox, which could produce a greater variety of sounds.
Because most of the coin-operated musical boxes were built for rough treatment (such as typical slapping and kicking by a disgruntled customer), many of these large models have survived into the 21st century, despite their relatively low production quantities. They are eagerly sought by collectors who have the space for their large or very large cabinets.
Icelandic musician Björk makes use of disc-mechanism musical boxes in the album Vespertine, with specially cut discs. London-based composer Richard Barrett has written a four-minute piece, 'trace', for two diatonic musical boxes.
Small musical boxes or lockets are sometimes featured in animated films, like Anastasia. Musical lockets are commonly used in Japanese anime and manga to convey romantic feelings. Notable examples include Sailor Moon's Densetsu Locket and Elfen Lied's Lilium music box.
This web application displays dots arranged in a chromatic scale spinning incrementally faster as they travel up the scale with the slowest dot cycling every three minutes. These dots move across a stationary line and activate a note to represent its place on the scale. The notes can be arranged with various sounds, frequencies, and keys. There are also settings for stereophonic and hand-cranked versions of the music box.
The visual layout of the spinning notes displays how, as chords are made, the whole form takes on geometric shapes. These shapes correspond to musical thirds, fourths, fifths, and so on. The hand-cranked variation allows the user to stop the animation and examine which notes are being activated.