Mechanical Music Through the Ages

A collection of Mechanical Music and Arcade Machines – highlighting examples of the development in mechanical entertainment over time.

Player Organs

As table-top organettes became more established, their restricted range inevitably told against them. Fourteen notes were only enough for the very simplest of music, shared as they were between a melodic range and a few deeper and non-consecutive notes for a rudimentary accompaniment. So there was an inexorable impetus towards the design of roll-operated organs with wider ranges of notes, to stand as attractive pieces of musical furniture in their own right.

Self playing organs have been around for a long time, in many small churches barrel organs were the norm, as there were few parishioners able to play a keyboard. Pinned barrels were of the form used in the larger musical boxes. In the latter half of the 19th Century the paper music roll first made its appearance. M. Welte and Sons claim to have built the first organs and orchestrions using paper music rolls with pneumatic action in 1887, although John McTammany and Merritt Gally were doing similar things in the United States. Reed organs were the earliest form of instrument using paper music rolls that were at all popular. This was probably due to the fact that suction wind was already being used to produce the sound, and the addition of a player mechanism was relatively easy to achieve. A large number of these instruments were produced up until the mid 1930s, with their perfection being reached in the Solo Orchestrelles of the Aeolian Co. 58, 65 and 116 note rolls were available for these instruments with all the best loved tunes in both the UK and USA. The Aeolian organs operated on pressure, rather than suction.

The following text is from the Web site http://www.themodist.comIn the 19th century the reed organ became as popular a domestic instrument as the piano. Reed organs were generally cheaper and more easily mass produced than pianos at least until the 1890s. Reed organ mechanisms are simpler than complicated piano actions: all that is required is essentially opening and closing the pathway to the reed. They are not touch sensitive like a piano. It is no surprise therefore that effective player organs appeared before player pianos. All that was needed was a simple mechanism to switch notes on and off. Player pianos required a far greater degree of finesse in order to give acceptable results.

A small scale roll was entirely sufficient since their musical scope would be extended by the various stop pitches available in the organ. For example Aeolian’s 46 note scale was effectively producing music over an 82 note range. The 46 notes of standard 8ft reed stop pitch was supplemented by two further high octaves in the treble at 4ft and 2ft pitch and one octave in the bass at 16ft pitch. On the same basis the 58 note scale was effectively a 94 note range when stop pitches are taken into consideration.

Good orchestral music requires a good orchestrator. Good organ music similarly requires good stop registration. There is as much an art in effective orchestration as there is in registration. With the player organ the hands are free to register the instrument much more effectively than if the same instrument were played manually and very complicated effects are possible when combined with all the technical possibilities of a well programmed organ music roll.

The rising wealth of industrialists in America allowed the organ companies – principally – the Aeolian Co, to manufacture residence pipe organs, which were magnificent musical instruments and exquisite pieces of furniture in the drawing rooms of the notable mansions of the big American cities. This proved a commercial success for the Company with the margin on residence organs significantly more than those built for churches. These big city families became known for their organ recitals and invitations were eagerly sought.