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 musical jewellery boxes have 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.

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 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 18 note does not only play a maximum number of 18 notes to make the tune, it means that it has 18 separate notes to use when it plays the tune. In fact even a simple 18 note mechanism can have between 60 & 100 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 simple melodies on a range of 18 keys, but think of the sound & music he can achieve when using 72 keys !

Mostly the small 18 notes with a 1" cylinder are used in Jewellery Boxes as these are just perfect to accompany a beautiful box. Some of the larger jewellery boxes do have the option to select the bigger 36 note movements that give a longer melody & more elaborate sound. Customers who are really looking for a music box to listen to as a musical instrument should consider the larger movement boxes of 36 note and over as these are designed for much longer listening pleasure as well as being a beautiful piece of furniture.

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.

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

Example Images

18 Note Movement

18 Note Ballerina Movement

36 Note Movement

18 note (1.18)

18 note with Ballerina (1.18)

36 note (1.36)

Technical Details

Movement Size

Length of Tune (Air)
(without repeating tune)

Total Playing Time until fully unwound (by repeating tune)


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

Approx 3 to 4 minutes


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

Approx 4 to 6 minutes


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

© N. J. Dean & Co.