The History of Mechanical Music

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The history of mechanical music may be as old as man themselves. In fact, it might even be older because, according to definition, mechanical music is the reproduction of sounds without human intervention. This means when music or sound is produced in the absence of the steady guidance of man, that itself can be called as mechanical music.

As we all know, man was not present on Earth when it was first created.


Before we dive into the history of mechanical music from its past and move towards the present of mechanical music, it is important that we defined what mechanical music is.

As mentioned above, mechanical music is the reproduction of sound in the absence of any human intervention.

This resonates with how The Musical Box Society of Great Britain defines it. According to the MBSGB, mechanical music is any self-playing instrument that creates music or echoes sounds that are not being punched in or selected by human fingers.

Going by this defintion, it can be any version of of unique musical instruments such as musical boxes or organettes.

However, there is also an implied understanding that mechanical music can be used to define the production of sound through various instruments which include, but are not limited to, guitars, pianos, and lyres, just to name a few.

The peak of mechanical music came about in the 19th century when it was the go-to option when it came to entertainment within the household which we will discuss in the next section.


It can be noted that ever since men have created musical instruments, there has always been a desire to make these self-sufficient; make them produce music without the need for men to play them. Either due to a lack of individuals who are capable of playing instruments or their own lack of musical ability, the desire to have instruments play themselves stems from the desire of man to enjoy music.

Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome

The most progress that the history of mechanical music saw was during the time when Greeks and Romans dominated most of the known world. This is because of how music is a key part of their daily lives. In fact, many of the instruments that we have today may be traced back to these periods.

In this section, we will divide the discussion of the history of mechanical music into two chapters. First, we will discuss its time in Ancient Greece before we proceed to talk about it in Ancient Rome.

History of Mechanical Music in Ancient Greece

Music to the Ancient Greeks has always been a vital piece of their daily lives. They integrated it in their culture, more so, in their beliefs enough that they integrate certain mythos, especially associating it with their gods.

In fact, they are fascinated with music so much that one of their gods is Apollo, which many also think of as the god of arts, and his favorite instrument is the lyre.

Additionally, they also have the muses who have always been linked with the arts in general.

Greeks have divided their mechanical instruments into three categories which are string, percussion, and wind. The Greeks came up with these categories based on how these instruments produce sound, among the many instruments that the Greeks contributed to the history of mechannical music includes the following:

  1. Lyre – imagine a harp, its size shrunk enough that you can hold it in your hand. It has seven strings tuned to the notes of the seven modes set in Ancient Greece.
  2. Kithara – admittedly a more complicated instrument to handle, this has seven strings stretched in a box-type frame. It is closely related to the lyre, this is the instrument of choice of their god Apollo which is why its importance goes beyond the history of mechanical music
  3. Aulos – believed to be an instrument with two reed pipes joined by a mouth band. According to records containing the history of mechanical music, the sound it produces is similar to a low-registering clarinet.
  4. Pan Pipes – an ancient instrument that is tuned by cutting each pipe to its desired length. This will also the basis of which note each pipe will represent. It is played by blowing the top of each pipe
  5. Hydraulis – the predecessor to the modern organ, it is built with the thought of putting constant pressure on the pipes using either water or air.

These were the Greek’s contributions to the history of mechanical music, and there have been many interpretations to these, some contradicting the descriptions that many historians have provided. In addition, some of those above were brought by the Romans over to their culture.

History of Mechanical Music in Ancient Rome

Romans borrowed many elements from the history of mechanical music among the Greeks and expanded on them. For example, they maintained the thought that music has magical and spiritual properties. However, the Romans expanded their functions and integrated them into their social lives gatherings such as in public entertainment and even in their military.

Additionally, among the instruments mentioned above, the lyre, kithara, aulos, hydraulis, and the trumpet are the ones that they adapted into their musical culture.

However, they also created their own instruments that were inspired from the Greeks, and these include:

  1. Askaules – the Roman version of a bagpipe
  2. Tibia – a double reeded pipe held together by a mouthband
  3. Cornu – a trumpet-like instrument that is more conical in shape which is mostly used for military signals and for parades
  4. Cymbala – a smaller version of the cymbals
  5. Lute – can be considered the predecessor of the guitar, it has fewer strings than a guitar which were stretched over a fretboard. Each string’s tone can be adjusted to accommodate a range of notes, making it far more flexible than the strings in the lyre or in the kithara

As you can see, even the instruments that Romans claim are to be theirs, are heavily inspired by the Greek instrument. They only made slight changes in its design and mechanism. In fact, they just changed the name that would suit them better.

However, this does not mean that their contribution to the history of mechanical music is to be undermined. Being able to expand the concepts thought of by the Greek is a huge accomplishment in itself. To be able to apply that to one’s daily life is another.

The Middle Ages – Carillon

The very first signs that an effort is to sparkplug the history of mechanical music came about during the Middle Ages through a music box mechanism that those living during those times called a carillon.

A carillon is a mechanism that referred to any set of bells fixed in a certain location. Their movement and their ability to produce sound was driven by weight using pegged drums incorporated into the mechanism which were wired to hammers which are the ones responsible for striking the bells when the machinations are triggered.

For 150 years, people in the Middle Ages lived this way – relying on a huge mechanism to tell what time it was. However, everything changed because of the invention of the spring. With its addition to the mechanism, the bells can now be made smaller.

With the bells now smaller, it became easier for them to calibrate the music boxes in the mechanism to be self-sufficient – the hammer programmed to strike the bells at specific times of the day. That way, they would not need humans to do it for them.

However, this all changed with the invention of another piece that set up the stage for the introduction of the music box.


The music box might just be the biggest contributor to the history of mechanical music seeing seeing that it tackles what mechanical music is at its core – the production of sound either through an instrument and, more importantly, withouth the direct intervention of the man.

The Swiss’ Dominance

The world had the Swiss watchmaker artisan to thank for the creation of the music box, more specifically, it was the invention of the comb and teeth mechanism that allowed the Swiss to begin creating the music box; a huge jump from the carillon.

The invention of the teeth and comb mechanism, and ultimately the music box, has been associated with Antoine Favre in 1796.

The invention of the comb and teeth mechanism was important towards the invention of the music box because this is one of the core parts of what makes a music box work, and since then, the music box industry has become a thriving industry.

The history of mechanical music tells us that the very first music box had a cylinder-type mechanism built into it. These have a section of a composition programmed in them that will turn striking the teeth and comb mechanism to reproduce the composition.

However, cotinued tinkering by Swiss watchmaker artisan, due to their desire to enjoy better music, paved the way for the invetion of the disc-type music box.

The main difference between the cylinder-type and disc-type is the addition of the disc and the starwheel. These two are vital in its mechanism because the disc has hooks which when turning, pushing the star wheel to strike each teeth and comb on both sides.

Moving forward, however, it was the addition of the disc that made the industry move further forward, and although German companies started to dominate the indsutry such as Polyphon, they still look to the Swiss for the fine teeth and comb mechanism.

Due to its continued dominance, the music box made its way to the shores of the United States of America, and if not for this move by the Germans, there would have been no musical entertainments in our homes because it was only at this point in the history of mechanical music that innovators inside the industry thought of bringing the system into the household.

Prior to this move, no one from Europe thought of this, and it would have been impossible because of the music boxes’ sheer size. On most occasions, you will only see music boxes in public places such as bars, and this caused a further boom in the industry.


Unfortunately, all good things have come to an end, and for the music boxes, it started when the First and Second World War broke out. This was mainly because of how the financial toll that both wars caused both during and after each one was huge.

In fact, a few years after the Second World War, the world plunged into a financial crisis which many called as The Great Depression. This was a massive hit in the history of the mechanical music industry because people did not have the financial capability to seek entertainment. Resources were being spent elsewhere, and the little money they had was spent to survive.

Additionally, companies producing the music boxes either went bankrupt, or focused their attention elsewhere especially that there were no more resources that can be used to the manufacture of such novelty.

The introduction of the gramophone also resulted in the downfall of the music box industry because it introduced one function that is not possible with the music box – the reproduction of a recorded voice. Since then, the music box faded into the history of mechanical music.

However, it is also due to the gramophone that mechanical music carried into today by introducing the ability of mechanical music devices to reproduce recorded voice. This became the basis of many portable devices a few generations ago and today such as the walkman, the iPod, and even our smartphones today are now able to play songs with such ease.

The history of mechanical music has come a long way since.

The history of mechanical music, and music in general, goes as far back as the Earth goes. It is full of interesting facts, and interesting people and to learn their significance in history should be reason enough to get anyone interested.

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