Musical Movements

The musical movements (mechanisms) that are fitted into the boxes are all of the traditional clockwork type with a key, usually fitted to the underside of the box, that winds up the spring motor that drives the movement.

The smaller cylinder music boxes of 18 note (& some 36 notes) mostly consist of a braked mechanism that releases to play upon lifting the lid. So providing the movement is wound up, the tune plays until the lid is closed again. Most of the larger cylinder boxes of 36 note & over mainly have a sliding stopper that once pushed over will allow the movement to play regardless of whether the lid is open or closed. Once the button is pushed back to the off position, the mechanism will finish at the end of the current tune that is playing.

Sizes of Movements

We usually refer to the movements as playing so many 'Airs' (Tunes), having a certain amount of notes (the number of tuned teeth on the playing comb) and cylinder size (length of the pinned cylinder). The 'tune' or 'air' number simply tells you the amount of tunes the movement has on it's cylinder or barrel, so a 1 'air' will only ever play one tune whereas a 3 'air' will play a maximum of 3 different tunes or 1 tune, but in 3 parts. The number of notes refers to the number of tuned teeth the comb has (the part that makes the sound), so refers to the actual musical scale compass the mechanism is capable of using. The often confusing point is that a movement of say 36 note does not only play a maximum number of 36 notes to make the tune, it means that it has 36 separate notes to use when it plays the tune. In fact even a simple 36 note arrangement can have around 200 notes actually played during just one revolution of the cylinder!

The important thing to understand is that as the note and cylinder size increases, so does the musical performance. So the larger the movement, the more elaborate musical arrangement and sound it can produce. For simplicity, if you think of a music box as a piano keyboard, a pianist will be able to play some nice melodies on a range of 36 keys, but think of the sound & music he can achieve when using 72 keys !

Multi Tune Movements

The intricately pinned cylinders on the larger movements that have more than 1 tune have a cam gear on the side of the cylinder that moves once per revolution to enable the cylinder to move across one increment to line up the pins for the next tune and so on. These movements play each of the different tunes one after the other and always in the same sequence (eg. tune 1, tune 2 , tune 3, tune 1, tune 2, tune 3 etc.) Each tune normally plays for one complete revolution of the cylinder, so for example a 3 tune movement must revolve the cylinder 3 times to play all the tunes one after the other. Larger boxes with changeable cylinders often have a repeat mechanism enabling the user to play the same tune over and over until the repeat lever is moved to normal play, then the cylinder will play in sequence as usual. These changeable cylinders can be removed and replaced with another one from the set supplied with the box to allow a much larger repertoire of music (eg. a changeable 72 note movement has 3 tunes per cylinder and 5 cylinders, so giving a total of 15 tunes) Normal movements are fixed and can never have the tune changed unless the whole movement is replaced.

Common Music Box Terminology

Air - The French name for Tune. This is commonly used as the majority of early music boxes were usually manufactured in the French speaking parts of Switzerland.

Cylinder - The cylindrical part of the music box that has the pins set into it (this is the actual musical arrangement part) and when it revolves plucks the sounding part to create the music. The size of a music box is often referred to by the length of this cylinder.

Comb - The metal part that is plucked by the pins in the cylinder to actually create a sound.

Teeth - The individual parts of the comb that each play a note. The note number of a movement tells us how many teeth the mechanism has.

Butterfly or Governor - The part that rotates at high speed and gives an air resistance to regulate the speed of the cylinder revolution.

Spring or Clockwork Motor - The driving force of the movement - a flat spring is wound under tension, then releases under smooth control of the butterfly wheel to turn the cylinder.

Key - Usually a "T" shape fitted underneath the box to wind the movement.

Lever - A winding ratchet lever to wind the movement on larger boxes with sideways spring motors.

Wire Brake - Usually used in lid activated boxes allowing a stopper wire to release the movement to play.

Slide Button - On music boxes that operate from a button at the front of the box. Slide the button to the right & the music will start to play; slide to the left & the music will stop at the end of the tune. This enables you to listen to the music box with the lid open or closed.

Example Images

18 Note Movement

36 Note Movement

50 Note Movement

72 Note Movement

18 note (1.18)

36 note (1.36)

50 note (2.50 or 3.50)

72 note (3.72)

Technical Details

Movement Size

Length of Tune (Air)
(without repeating tune)

Total Playing Time until fully unwound (by repeating tune)

1.18

1 tune on an 18 note scale approx 12 to 15 seconds melody length

Approx 3 to 4 minutes

1.36

1 tune on a 36 note scale approx 25 to 32 seconds melody length

Approx 4 to 6 minutes

2.36

2 tunes on a 36 note scale approx 13 to 16 seconds per tune (2 tunes on one revolution of the cylinder, total playing time approx 25 to 32 seconds)

Approx 4 to 6 minutes

2.50

1 tune on a 50 note scale playing in 2 parts approx 30 to 40 seconds per part (1 tune per cylinder playing on 2 cylinder revolutions, total playing time approx 1 minute 30 seconds to 2 minutes)

Approx 6 to 7 minutes

3.50

3 tunes or 1 tune playing in 3 parts on a 50 note scale approx 30 to 40 seconds per tune or part (3 tunes per cylinder, total playing time approx 1 minute 30 seconds to 2 minutes)

Approx 6 to 7 minutes

3.72

3 tunes or 1 tune playing in 3 parts on a 72 note scale approx 30 to 40 seconds per tune (3 tunes per cylinder, total playing time approx 1 minute 30 seconds to 2 minutes)

Approx 6 to 7 minutes

Interchangeable
3.72

Approx 28 to 35 seconds per tune (with up to 36 tunes on 12 cylinders. Each cylinder has 3 tunes with playing time approx 1 minute 24 seconds to 1 minute 45 seconds per cylinder)

Approx 6 to 7 minutes

3.144

Approx 28 to 35 seconds per tune (3 tunes per cylinder, total playing time approx 1 minutes 24 seconds to 1 minute 45 seconds)

Approx 12 to 18 minutes

4.144
Cartel

Approx 45 to 50 seconds per tune (4 tunes per cylinder, total playing time approx 3 minutes to 3 minutes 20 seconds)

Approx 12 to 18 minutes

4.144
Interchangeable Cartel

Approx 45 to 50 seconds per tune (with up to 32 tunes on 8 cylinders. Each cylinder has 4 tunes with playing time approx 3 minutes to 3 minutes 20 secondss per cylinder)

Approx 12 to 18 minutes

© N. J. Dean & Co.