John Wolff's Web Museum

Mechanical Music

  Anna at the player piano

Kids just love Mechanical Music!

Back in the days BC (Before Children) I had a hobby that involved pianolas and reproducing pianos. Time, space, and money all seemed to evaporate when the kids arrived, so I figured I would have to down-size temporarily to smaller instruments. Mechanical crank organs and organettes looked like an interesting possibility, and the roll-playing models offered a prospect of making my own music rolls. Perhaps some nursery rhymes for the babies...

Well, the babies are now adults, and the pianos are still unfinished. In the intervening 30 years the crank organ hobby has led to some fascinating work in restoring hundred-year-old instruments, preserving their original music, designing and building new instruments, producing new music rolls, and playing them at every opportunity.

The pages following describe some of the smaller instruments and their music. Your feedback, comments, or questions are always welcome via the Enquiry and feedback form.

The Instruments

The 14-note American Organette The 14-note "American Organette"

These little organettes from the late 1870s were the first affordable instruments for distribution of recorded music to the general public.

The 20-note Celestina Organette The 20-note "Celestina" Organette

The Celestina is a much-improved 20-note instrument from the early 1880s.

The Gem Roller Organ The "Gem" Roller Organ

The 1885 Gem stores its music on wooden cylinders, in the same way that musical clocks and barrel organs have done since the 1700s.

The 14-note Crank Organ The (home-made) 14-note Crank Organ

This mechanism of this little crank organ was designed and built "from scratch" in 2010.

The Organ Grinder at work The Organ Grinder at work

The person who plays a mechanical instrument in public is traditionally known as an "Organ Grinder".

The Music

Preserving the original music Preserving the original music

This page lists some of my efforts to preserve the music on original organette rolls and tune sheets from the 1880s.

Start of 14-note tune sheet 14-note Organette Music

Here is a small collection of 14-note "American Organette" music from the 1880s, preserved in computer format as downloadable MIDI files.

New Arrangements for 20-note organettes New Arrangements for 20-note organettes

This page describes some new 20-note organette rolls arranged by Stephen Kent Goodman in 2002-04.

How to make music roll boxes How to make music roll boxes

This page describes the method that I use to make 2-part covered boxes for organette and crank organ rolls.

Broadway pianola roll label Broadway pianola roll catalogue

YOU can help to complete this catalogue of Australian-made "Broadway" pianola rolls.

M.Brash & Co. roll box label Piano Roll Dealers' Labels

A collection of dealers' advertising labels from piano roll boxes.

Resources for further information:

Please note that the work that I have outlined in these pages is strictly a part-time hobby - it is not a business. However, like most hobbyists, I am generally more than happy to share and exchange with like-minded enthusiasts. Please use the Enquiry and feedback form for questions, comments, or further information.

Original text and images Copyright © John Wolff 2003-20.
Last Updated: 20 October 2020 - added page for roll dealers' labels.
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