Automatic Music: Mechanical Musical Instruments

Music has evolved vastly thanks to the innovative pioneers in the field of mechanical musical instruments. Inventors would merge simple instrument concepts with more complicated ones like pipe organs to produce brand new creations. Although a number of mechanical instruments require a person to power the contraptions, the fact that the instruments produce the actual musical sounds themselves makes them so special. Step back in time with this guide and discover some of the most notable mechanical music instruments.

Aeolian Harp

The aeolian harp is traditionally a stringed rectangular wooden box with a bridge on either end. True to its namesake, Aeolus, the mythological Greek god of the winds, aeolian harps sound when wind blows across their strings. The strength of the wind and tuning of the strings affect variations in tone and volume. Particularly prevalent between the 17th to 18th centuries, a few still do exist today including enormous outdoor versions.

Music Box

Owners of musical jewelry & trinket boxes will already be familiar with the sweet, stilted, tinkling tones of the music box. Unlike modern versions, the first music boxes perfected by Swiss craftsmen in the 1800s ranged from palm-sized boxes to larger table-sized varieties. A wind-up metal cylinder inside bears distinctive bumps on its surface which act as musical notes. The other key element is a rigid metal comb, which scrapes against the rotating cylinder. When a bump hits the comb, it produces a sound. In effect, one cylinder is a single piece of music and can be replaced with others.

Player Piano (Pianola)

From the late-1800s until the end of the 1920s, musicians enjoyed a new form of entertainment: the player piano. Resembling an upright acoustic piano, the player piano functions by pushing pneumatic foot pedals. Musical content is provided by inserting a piano roll: a scroll of paper perforated at intervals to indicate musical notes. When the Pianola brand of player pianos was first introduced, it was so sought after that the word “pianola” became synonymous with the instruments in general. At the height of its popularity, the player piano was favored among numerous notable jazz greats including Scott Joplin, George Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton. Sadly, the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequently World War II led to a major decline in the production and demand for pianolas.


Although named after Zeus’ daughter whose moniker translates to “beautiful voice”, the calliope is a loud, reedy instrument, often happily off-pitch. Introduced in the 19th century, calliopes were piano-like instruments, which produced sound by driving steam through immense whistles. They were operated with a piano roll, in a similar manner to the pianola. Due to their size and novelty, calliopes were traditionally used in steamboats, fairgrounds and circuses, and sometimes housed in colorful horse-drawn carriages.

Barrel Organ

Barrel organs, usually associated with street-side peddlers, buskers and sporting grounds, operate in the manner of a small pipe organ combined with a wind-up mechanical music box. Unlike the metal cylinders in music boxes however, barrel organs use a larger wooden version embedded with metal bits to produce long and short musical notes. They are still used today – albeit by older generations - and have niche cults of fans around the world.

While it is easy to overlook the advances in technology behind these quaint musical instruments, the surprising fact is that they produced some of the first pre-programmed music in history. In 1906 the American composer, John P. Sousa, famously denounced mechanical music, fearing it would pose a threat to music as they knew it. Looking back today, we can see that the sound of mechanical music inevitably became an integral part of music, not just in the U.S., but around the world!