Music boxes have been around since the 1700s, allowing people to play and replay their favorite songs at will. In their earliest iterations, these devices could be the size of a dresser, but as technology advanced, they became smaller and smaller — resulting in boxes that can be used as accent decor on a mantlepiece or coffee table.
If you’re wondering how music boxes work, Music Box Attic is here with an overview to answer all your questions!
How Music Boxes Are Made
Making a music box from scratch is an incredibly long and complex process, as it must combine techniques dating back 150 years with modern manufacturing practices. Here is a brief description of the process:
- Workers drill holes in a steel plate to begin making the comb
- They mill the comb on one side to prepare it for the lead and tin weight
- A CNC machine is used to cut the teeth, but they have not been shaped or hardened
- The teeth are then formed and perfected
- With the teeth formed, they must be hardened to ensure their durability
- The comb is then soldered to a lead and tin block to create the low notes
- Machines then cut the block to create more comb teeth
- Then a foot is added to the comb to dampen vibration and ensure a cleaner note
- The teeth on the comb are tested to adjust and tune the notes
- To complete the device, the comb is placed in a box with a rotating cylinder that plucks the teeth in a specific order to form a melody.
Now that you know a little bit about how music boxes are made, we can move on to how they work.
How Music Boxes Work
The comb and the cylinder of a music box are designed to vibrate on contact and create the various notes needed to play a song. The cylinder has several protruding pins placed in predetermined locations that pluck the teeth on the comb, making them vibrate. Since each tooth on the comb is a different length, it creates a unique vibration to ensure high and low notes.
The speed at which the cylinder rotates and the size of the cylinder itself will dictate how the song sounds when played.
How Long Does A Music Box Play
Now that you know how music boxes work, you can understand a bit more about their musical capabilities, like how long they can play and what types of songs they can play. The length of the song is typically dictated by the note size of the music box — how many teeth are on the comb and how many protrusions are on the cylinder.
Physically, more teeth on the comb and more protrusions on the cylinder will result in a larger note size, larger music box, and longer song. For example, an 18-note music box (the smallest size) may only measure about two inches in length, while a 144-note music box (the largest size) can measure about 16 inches in length.
Here’s a breakdown of how long each note size will play on a traditional movement once fully wound:
- 18-Note Music Box: 2-4 Minutes
- 23-Note Music Box: 4-5 Minutes
- 30 Note Music Box: 6-7 Minutes
- 50-Note Music Box: 12-13 Minutes
- 72-Note Music Box: 18-20 Minutes
- 144-Note Music Box: 30 Minutes
The note count of the music box will also determine how rich and full the melody sounds. The higher the note count, the closer the song will sound to the original version. Visit our listening library to hear how each melody will sound in different note sizes.
Modern Music Boxes
Today, there are also digital music boxes that use USB devices to record and play music. How these music boxes work is with a device concealed inside the box that plays music at the lift of a lid — similar to a traditional music box that has an on/off wire stopper. These are activited with a light sensor, so when you open the lid the light turns the music on and as you close it, the light leaves the box to turn the music of. They also have a USB connection to allow owners to change melodies and playlists at will. Normally, USB music boxes can play up to 100 MB of music — depending on their memory.
Choosing A Song
When you purchase a traditional music box, the pre-installed song is the only option it can play until it is re-installed with a totally different mechanical movement, which involves a music box technician. At Music Box Attic, we have a large music library to allow you to select your own song, and we’ll install it into the music box for you. If you choose a USB device for your music box, we will also load it for you, ready to go, but you can change your music at will, at home — that’s how this type of music box works. But traditional devices require a professional to swap the song.
At Music Box Attic, we want you to learn everything you can about music boxes to appreciate their beauty and utility. Now that you know how music boxes work, check out our other blogs to discover the history and benefits of music boxes!