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Brief Introduction of Automatic Musical Instruments

Updated Beijing Time

In the 14th century the first programmed musical instruments - the tower carillons - sound in the Netherlands. The history of mechanical music begins with "the singing towers of the Low Countries".

In the 17th century scaled-down carillons are introduced into the drawing-room: the musical clock contains a row of bells which are played by a pro­grammed cylinder just like the tower carillon.

In 1796 the Swiss watchmaker Antoine Favre takes out the patent on "the carillon without bells or hammers". This is the birth of the cylinder musical box. Here the music is produced by a row of tuned steel teeth that are plucked by a musical pattern of pins on a cylinder.


Around 1885 the disc musical box is born. The musical cylinder is replaced by a steel disc which can be produced in quantity. The result is enormous mass production. Disc musical boxes are soon available all over the world.

Already in the Renaissance organs are to be found which are played by a programmed cylinder. These early barrel organs are initially destined only for palaces and castles. In the 18th century the barrel organ - often in combination with a clock - also finds its way into the houses of the wealthy bourgeoisie.

Stringed instruments, played by a pinned barrel, are already making their appearance in the 16th century. Around 1900 the pianola is introduced. This instrument, which is played by perforated paper rolls, becomes a world-wide success.

Orchestrions are combinations of various automatic musical instruments designed for cafés and dance halls. They were produced in large numbers and varieties between 1880 and 1930. Their rôle was taken over in the thirties by the gramophone and juke-box.

Anselmo Gavioli's 1892 patent of the "book organ" marks a turning-point in the history of the mechanical organ. Street organs, fairground organs and dance organs rapidly adopt the cheap and easily produced organ book.

The Netherlands owe their tradition of street organs to the system of hiring, established in Amsterdam in 1875 by the Belgian Leon Warnies. By this means organ players can have their instrument maintained by specialists and from time to time avail themselves of a new organ. 

Around 1700 the first barrel organs appear on the street. These instruments are hung from a strap around the neck and are played by a wooden musical cylinder. After the German organ builder Carl Frei is established in Breda in 1920, the Netherlands become the pre-eminent country of street organs. Street organs - or "pierementen" - are still being built in the Netherlands.

The construction of fairground organs has a deep-rooted tradition above all in France and Germany. At the beginning of the 20th century huge instruments are built there and become the musical and visual focus of the great fairs.

From the beginning of the 20th century up to the second World War dance organs are very popular, especially in Belgium. These instruments with their monumental façades form an integral part of the decor of the dance halls. Thanks to their tremendous repertoire of book music they can play any dance requested.

(By courtesy of Guangdong Museum of Art)


Editor: Jessie Hwang

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