The Many Facts Around the Music Box Mechanism that You Should Know

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Music boxes have existed since the 18th century, and the music box mechanism has undergone many developments since it was first crafted. From the very first version when cylinders were incorporated into its construct until they became larger and even more sophisticated. These music boxes have exploited human nostalgia in the most novelty of ways.  

However, with such a long history, what more goes into each music box that makes one so little such a novelty and one so complicated? 


The beginning of the music box has been attributed to Swiss watchmakers, and although historians never came to a consensus, people have come to an agreement that the beginning of the music box industry started with Louis Favre as he exploited the thriving industry of musical boxes in Switzerland.

The tinkering continued among the Swiss that eventually, they developed two types of mechanisms – the cylinder type and the disc type.

The cylinder type was the first to be developed by the Swiss during the infancy years of their music box industry. The mechanism built into the compartment was simple – it had a cylinder that when turned leaps to produce the melody imprinted into its structure. It was the single mechanism that dominated the industry which is why, at that point, craftsmen only sought to develop it.

For example, one of their most significant innovations was adding more teeth to the comb of the music box reaching scales of 15 to 25. Adding more teeth to the mechanism allows for more depth. You have to remember that each tooth on the comb represents a note, and the more there are, the more notes can be played by the music box. This means that the song that is played on the music box will be close to accurate as possible.

The music box industry in Switzerland is thriving, and this led to more manufacturers competing with one another. This meant that more innovations were being done to the cylinder music box mechanism. In most cases, this should be good, however, it imploded instead as evidenced by the declining sales and the threat of the cylinder type manufacturers going out of business.

This need for a resurgence in the music box industry brought about the birth of the disc type music box mechanism.

The development of the disc type music box mechanism is attributed to the Germans in Leipzig when Paul Lochmann created it, but it was not introduced to the public until a year later after the patent was approved, after which, Germany dominated the music box industry through the surge of Symphonion Corporation and the Polyphon Music Corporation.

However, in spite of their dominance over others, they still eventually turned to the Swiss in crafting the combs for their music boxes. Eventually, with the advancements that they put in, Polyphon Music eventually took over with the quality of the products they are making available to the public.

These two companies have kept the music box industry in relevance for years, until more competition came to the market, but none ever surpassed the two.

The music box industry eventually arrived in the shores of the United States of America, and a further boom in the industry came about especially in the disc music box mechanism necause through the efforts of Gustave Brachausen, the music box made its way to the households. This is mostly because he further shrank to a size that is not bulky to look at when brough in to the home.


A music box reproduces compositions as accurately as possible; as close to the actual composition, through a mechanism built into its construct. This mechanism is what its creators call a movement.  

A movement is what a self-contained part of a composition is called, normally referred to in a symphony. Every movement has its own role to fulfill in making sure that a song comes out the way that it should, and for the entire composition to be produced or played, a series of these movements need to be played in quick succession.  

If not done so in this manner, movements will just be individual sections playing without a unified goal of playing to finishing.  

The same goes for a music box. All the pieces inside its construct are collectively called a movement, and individually, they are nothing. However, when played precisely as they were designed and in a unified way, a beautiful sound comes through.


As mentioned above, a music box was first introduced in the 18th century by watchmakers, and eventually, two types were created – the cylinder type music box and the disc type music box.

The cylinder type music box mechanism was the first ever music box crafted by the Swiss. In its core is an interchangeable cylinder that has protrusions engraved on its surface. This represents the musical notes written into the composition. When the cylinder turns, the protrusions will strike each tooth of the comb. As a result, a melody is produced as it was intended.

Although, for the cylinder to start moving, you have to remember that it is vital that both the lever and the spring housing works well together. Both of these are the ones responsible for providing the mechanical energy to move the music box mechanism.


The continued tinkering of Swiss watchmakers on the music box mechanism paved the way for the construction of the disc type. This was brought about by the desire of men to enjoy some good music. As a result, huge music boxes were made.

In spite of its size, the music box mechanism in disc music boxes ends the same way – producing a melody that is a representation of an entire composition. The difference lies in how it does it compared to a cylindrical music box.

Two main features that differentiate the disc type from the cylinder type are the installation of the disc and the starwheel. The disc is propelled to turn using the lever and the spring housing working together. As the disc turns, the pins protruding from it will push the starwheel to turn and hit the teeth of the comb as it turns on its axis producing the sound it was designed to create.

In addition, the disc is interchangeable. This adds convenience because the discs are less bulky compared to the cylinders.


Music boxes were not always as small as we know them now. You have seen how huge jukeboxes are in diners, and on rare occasions, in bars. Unfortunately, they have become more of a decoration nowadays. However, back in the day, it was one of the many ways that people enjoyed good music in public places.

These music boxes normally require coins to play music. These were also based on the disc type music box mechanism. The only difference is it does not have any need for a lever. In addition, because it is based on the technology used in disc type music boxes, discs are still in its construct, but it changes itself instead of someone doing it manually.

They acted as the first generation jukeboxes, but was later replaced by the latter because these coin operated machines only played a fragment of the entire composition. Additionally, the quality was poor. On the other hand, jukeboxes played entire songs among thousands of selections, and the quality of music that it produced cannot be compared to that of the first generation.

They eventually disappeared in places where they can be used by the public. However, because they were originally designed to to be handled rough, they continue to survive until today, although, their only purpose now is to be collected.


Just like in life, techonology’s time on top is a cycle. Time will come when the crash to the bottom will eventually happen.

This is what happened with music boxes and its dominance over the music industry, and this downfall can be attributed to the several factors

The Effect of World War 1

The First World War had affected many industries both during and when the war finally came to a close. In fact, the war effort ended so many lives of classical composers that the world just did not have any to offer.

On the other hand, many new compositions were made that were directed to the effort of letting the world know of what happened.

However, one of the biggest tolls that the war effort had was the blow it caused to every country’s financial capabilities. One of those industries affected by this was the music box industry because the companies manufacturing these pieces were hit hard by bankruptcy which is why some have decided to shift their attention to other products. The transition was easier than expected because even beforehand, these companies have been producing more than just music boxes. All they had to do was shut one department and move their resources over.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression started just after the Second World War, and just like the first time around, it had hit many industries hard. What made this worse was how quickly one World War had to happen after just recently ending one, and just like how manufacturers of the music box mechanism were hit badly after the first, the same goes with the second.

In fact, others think that its effect on the industry that produces the music box mechanism might have been worse than the first time around because during this period, people had changed their priorities. Luxury was almost not an option, and entertainment was just as much of a luxury than any other.


The gramophone made a huge impact to the music box industry because unlike the latter, a gramophone allows for voice to be recorded and heard through the device. This is a particular function that cannot be replicated by the music box mechanism.

An argument that can be had when it comes to the gramophone causing the downfall of the music box is how its predecessor, the phonograph, from which its mechanism was based on, did not cause this. This is mainly because it was limited in its function when it came to the mechnism built into it, but that is another topic of discussion altogether.

All three factors created an impact so strong that the music box industry became incapable of recovering from that it just slowly disintegrated into history. It was just an unfortunate event after another, and the blow that the gramophone had on its industry was the last blow.

It is not until very recently that music boxes are making their presence known once more among the public. You see them in souvenir shops if an attraction has music to offer, and its size makes it even more convenient. Moreover, you also see them in jewelry boxes. In some, you see it handed down as a family heirloom; from one generation to the other.

In some industries, it has even been associated with horror movies, but this is yet another topic for discussion.

It also has increased its value among collectors of music boxes, regardless if it was private or among the museum industry, has become large enough that it is slowly making its presence known once more even if it is only in novelty space.

The music box and the music box mechanism have had a very long history. This has given rise to interesting facts that many might not know today especially if you are not either an enthusiast of them or do not work within the industry. In fact, even those within the industry might not know all of these unless you have dabbled in music boxes for a long time.

To know at least this much should be enough to hopefully let everyone see music boxes and the music box mechanism in a different light, and bring a resurgence of interest in an era in the music industry that is not mentioned as often as it should be.

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