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Music boxes

A recent trip to Maine introduced me to an interesting display of quantitative (in this case, musical) information displayed in a physical medium: music boxes.

In the small town of Wiscasset, about an hour north of Portland, is an amazing private museum called the Musical Wonder House. As frilly as it sounds, it is one of the most rewarding museum visits I've ever experienced. Danilo Konvalinka, the founder, curator, and part-time guide of the MWH has gathered hundreds of antique music boxes which, before the advent of the Victrola, was one of the most popular mediums for musical enjoyment.

The music boxes come in roughly two distinct styles: a round cylinder with small, hand-placed spikes that pluck notes from a metal "comb" (the precursor to today's music boxes); and a flat, rotating metal disc with triangluar divots punched downward that also pluck notes from a comb. The latter style spins the disc horizontally and is obviously the precursor of the turn-table on modern record players.

Aside from the unique and beautiful songs they play, it's fascinating to watch the musical notation laid out in front of you in time and space by the placement of either the pins of a cylinder or the divots of the disc. Arpeggios, finales, trills...they're all placed spatially on the playing surfaces. Unlike an instrumental performance, you can watch the music coming up. It reminded me immediately of the VHS tape I purchased at one of E.T.'s talks, where the musical notation of several classical music pieces was animated on the screen.

The music boxes were also excersises in resolution/depth of content. In contrast to today's five-and-dime, one-song music boxes, some of the cylinders, which are the older and more artisanal of the two styles, had upwards of 10,000 pins placed in them, some no more than a 1/32nd of an inch apart, so that the cylinders had multiple song selections on them (after playing a tune, the cylinder would proceed 1/32nd to the left to allow a new set of pins to align for the next song). These were hand-placed by craftsmen working in the mid to late 19th century.

The metal discs, which are interchangeable like LP records, soon took over the market, as they could be mass-produced by punching the discs on machinery, but are the more enjoyable to watch as you see the divots rotate slowly around to the comb. One box we were shown took advantage of this: the comb had been polished to a bright shine so that the gleam of the "tooth" shone through the disc as it was plucked.

If you are nearby, it is well worth the visit to the MWH to see these music boxes in action. I doubt many other people have seen them as demonstrations of the display of quantitative information, but it enriched my experience to watch and listen to them on several different levels at once!

-- matt iden (email)

Response to Display of QI: music boxes

When I first saw the displays on a music sequencer program I was thrilled by how easy it was to understand the music, compared to conventional music notation.

For those who have never seen this the top level overview usually has rows going across the screen representing different tracks in the music. You can easily see when track is playing and when not.

There is also a more detailed level where you can see individual notes on a "piano roll" display. Different tracks can be shown in different colours.

As the music plays back the display scrolls sideways showing you the patterns as you hear them.


-- Matthew Leitch (email)

Response to Display of QI: music boxes

For about four times the cost of flying to Maine, you can buy a low-resolution music box with movable pegs. For free, though, you can view a picture of the Gloggomobil (barrel organ).

I got to play with one, briefly, while wandering and waiting in an airport in Zurich. It's both charming and facinating. For the money, though, I'd at least want additional barrels so I could save one project while I worked on another.

Searching Google for barrel organs also came up with some interesting sites.

-- Mike Combs (email)

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