How Does A Wind Up Music Box Work and Its Many Variations

  • by

How does a wind up music box work that it causes such nostalgic feelings to come about? Although, music has always had a unique power of exploiting nostalgia in every person. It tugs on heartstrings that cause a surge of dopamine; an incomparable euphoria – subtle, yet powerful. It is just like a drug – it results in a powerful. This is the kind of power that music boxes and its many variations exploit, which begs the question: How does a wind up music box work?


Before we talk about what mechanism makes a music box and how does a wind up music box work, we should first look at what a wind up music box is.

A wind up music box is a music box that requires a lever to be spun to propel the inner mechanisms, most likely a cylinder or a disc, to turn. This is made possible by a spring that stores force as the level is spun by an outside force. The resulting spinning motion will then result in music or sound being produced by the machinations inside the casing.

This is a simplification of how wind-up music boxes work. However, there are different variations of a music box, and each one has a different way of producing the sounds that it is intended to manufacture, although, on most occasions, the difference between their inner workings might only be a result of one or two differing parts.

We will tackle next the many wind-up music boxes commonly seen today, and work through how each one works to produce the nostalgic music that you hear.


As you may have already surmised, music boxes do not simply produce sound like magic. It has small machines that interact with one another to create the dopamine-inducing nostalgia that it is intended to produce. This mechanism that answers how does a wind up music box work, collectively, is called a movement.

Why is it called a movement?

In a composition, a movement is what composers call individual sections of their entire work. On its own, they form a part of the entire musical. However, in order to produce the entire music, each one needs to be played in quick succession with one another.

This is similar to the mechanisms inside the cases of music boxes, each one needs to interact with one another in rapid succession to ensure that sound is produced the way that it is intended.

How Does A Wind Up Music Box Work: Cylinder Type 

The cylinder type of mechanism was the godfather of all music boxes. It was first crafted in the 18th century by Swiss artisans in the watchmaking industry.

How does a wind up music box work with a cylinder type mechanism?

To answer this question, we have to first look at the parts that make up this type of mechnism, and this includes the following:

  1. Comb – mainly responsible for the melodies created when the cylinder turns when the protrusions on its surface strike the various teeth that are attached to the comb. Each tooth is a representation of the many notes required to play each composition. The more teeth the comb has the more depth each melody will have.
  2. Cylinder – the main component of the entire mechanism, this holds smaller protrusions that are responsible for striking the teeth of the comb to produce sound. It is powered by two more components within the mechanism that propel it to start spinning.
  3. Lever – the only visible part of the mechanism, the lever is responsible for giving the cylinder the power it requires to spin inside
  4. Spring Housing – holds the spring that transfers the energy to the cylinder stored through winding the lever to a certain extent
  5. Air Brake – to others, it is also known as the ‘Governor’ because of how it regulates the tempo of the song being played by regulating how quickly the energy is being transferred by the spring.
  6. Bed Plate – base plate to others, its only function is to ensure that all the parts mentioned above are kept in their places; a piece to anchor all of them

So, how does a wind up music box work when it is made with a cylinder type construct?

It starts off with someone winding up the to taut the spring as far as it can go. This helps store energy in the mechanism that once the lever is let go, it will propel the spring to unwind transferring this energy over to the cylinder.

As the cylinder turns, the tiny protrusion on its surface strike each tooth on the comb at specific intervals to create the music as it was composed bringin the song to life.

Among the many music box mechanisms available, this is the simplest form, and thus, explaining how it works is as simple as that.

How Does A Wind Up Music Box Work: Disc Type Music Box 

The disc-type music box mechanism was developed out of the desire of many to enjoy good music, and as a result, the music box has become larger in size but is more flexible when it came to its use.

There are two parts that differentiate the disc type from the cylinder type of music box mechanism and these are the disc and the star wheel.

The disc basically replaces the cylinder as the core of the mechanism, however, the star wheel is just as important. These two hold the answer to the question “How does a wind-up music box work” when it is installed with a disc-type movement.

Firstly, you have to crank the lever, and this goes for any wind-up music box. This wind-up will then propel the disc to start spinning. Underneath the disc is a specific number of pins hanging off the bottom surface. These pins, as the disc spins, will push the star wheel to start rotating on its axis, and as it turns, the star wheel will strike the combs on each side to produce the composition that the disc was meant to play.

In addition, the disc can be changed from one to another, accommodating what the listener would like to hear and gives the kind of flexibility that the cylinder-type mechanism does not.

Programming Your Own Music Box

Music boxes have become such a novelty that nowadays, not only is everyone asking how does a wind up music box work. In fact, there are others who are trying to program their own music boxes either for their own amusement or per someone else’s request.

One method of programming a music box is through a method called hole punching. This normally involves manual and electronic work, and some musical ability because you have to record the melody or the song that you intend to program into the music box.

In a way, if you learn how to do this properly, you learn more about a wind up music box operation because, other than building the music box yourself, you get to go in depth with the machinations that go on inside the music box.

Hole punching is one method of programming a music box. This involves both manual and electronic work, and judging from what we have seen so far, it might require some musical ability as well.

The manual labor stems from the need to spend hours on punching holes on the paper strip where you outline the notes for the song that you are programming into your music box. On most occasions, this might take at least three hours. Other take even more depending on the amount of holes that you need to go through and the length of the song.

ADDITIONAL TIP: To avoid any mistakes and reduce the amount of time you spend programming the music box, it might be better if you outline the notes on the paper strip first. This ensures that you are punching the right notes because doing so the first time already takes at least three hours of manual labor.

That should be enough time to look more in depth on how does a wind up music box work.

Once done punching the holes, you might want to check whether the tune that the music box is producing is exactly what you intend it to be. Pay particular attention on the tempo and the notes that are being played.

Take note that there are some notes that no music box is able to play. This is where a combination of your musical ability and your electronic work comes in handy. By recording the song you get the notes you will be using and by having them visually in front of you, you can adjust those that do not register in a music box to a higher octave that will still fit the song that you envisioned your piece will be playing.

However, mistakes, regardless of how careful you are, cannot be avoided, and there will be times when you will commit them.

One common mistake that many programmers do is punching the hole at the wrong place, and there are many factors that can contribute to causing this – exhaustion and eye strain are just some of those. If this does happen to you, remember that if you know how a wind up music box works, then you know that accuracy of these indentations are important.

To correct these, you can simply cover up the punched hole from the back. Other use masking tape, while some simply use a piece of paper. Cut the parts that cover the correct holes otherwise you will be erasing the notes that should have been in the program.

It might be helpful if you have a machine where you can run the strip through that mimics how a music box works. This is to ascertain that you do not miss any mistaken entries that you might have overlooked while doing it by hand and eye.

In addition, this would also be helpful in making sure that the distance in between the punched holes are correct. This is vital in establishing the tempo of each piece or song that you will be programming into the music box, regardless of its size.


There was a time when music boxes were not used to play any music. Their mechanism was designed to tell time which the people during the time period call Carillon. This was a bell installed in the large clock tower in the middle of town. What it does is alarm people and tell them what time it was.

At a time when clocks were not readily available to the public, this was the only way to let the public know the time. Mind you, these were the Middle Ages in Europe. Bells only became smaller when clocks were invented when the spring was made.

It was the addition of the spring into the mechanism of the Carillon that shrank the size of the bell that was being used. Then, the invention and the addition of the tuned teeth on a steel comb into the mechanism has paved the way for the eventual creation of modern music boxes which were initially still put into clocks but eventually outgrew this function.

As you may have already noticed, a music box involves a lot of technical work, and knowing how does a wind up music box work can take years to learn. Even more so to understand, and to become an expert with them will require several backward and forwards. It is a trial and error.

Music boxes go a long way back, and they will require a lot of work to learn. However, to get it right and have it tug on those heartstrings as soon as the melody and the song come out just the way you want it to, the feeling is incomparable. Explanations can be made, but regardless, to have that one moment of nostalgia is, again, incomparable.

Do you still want to know more? Perhaps visiting a museum of mechanical music is a good idea. See our list of the best mechanical music museums.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *