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Monday, 20 August 2012

The mechanised Ahhh Factor

Various sights have a built-in Ahhh Factor. Kittens for one thing, babies suddenly breaking into a smile are another. And music boxes. You have to be very hard-hearted to resist one of these gently rotating devices, twinkling Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Provided the wood carving is delicate enough, the tune will always imply German rather than English lyrics.

Where does a music box's appeal lie? It starts with the idea. As a wind-up mechanism it's obviously related to the clock. Clocks are serious, music boxes not so, although they are not trivial. Not quite swords into plough shares but along those lines.

The music is created by pins on a revolving drum plucking at tuned metal flanges. Since the system is contained in a limited space the flanges are quite short and thus generate high-pitched notes. Normally we find comfort in lower notes; music boxes are the exception.

The tempo is usually lento, also a source of comfort. You can check this on boxes which may be over-driven by winding the key in reverse. A faster tempo tends to sound inappropriate, even disturbing.

Volume is pianissimo if not pianississimo, suitable for a very humane alarm clock. The drum diameter limits the tune’s duration.

A proper music box faces no serious competition from modern-day electronic gizmos attached to plastic dolls, toy Ferraris or greeting cards. Once people may have been impressed, now such devices are seen as merely “clever”. There is no art in them, only technology.

I’ll go out on a limb and say music boxes are genderless in their appeal. Both men and women respond. Surprisingly, they are not directed uniquely towards children.

It would be difficult to declare war via a music box.

9 comments:

Rouchswalwe said...

A few years ago, I wound up my Hansel and Gretel music box for a little one. He listened intently. When the song ended, he asked politely if he could pick it up. He handled it carefully while subjecting it to a thorough investigation. Finally, he placed it back on the table, gently, and with crinkles in his forehead, asked me, "where's the speaker?"

The Crow said...

I have a cherished memory of a music box given the Christmas I was seven years old, which played bits from Swan Lake and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Yep, there was a ballerina atop a rotating cover, in a pink tutu.

The recollection should end there, but it never does. I overwound the key and broke the mechanism. Then I took it apart to try to fix it, couldn't, then couldn't put it back together again. I could rotate the platform by hand and was endlessly fascinated by how all those bits made sound, but, of course, it was never the same.

Sigh.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

RW (zS): This is a sad story because it shows how electronics shuts us off from technology. There's nothing instructive about some wires and a printed circuit card. Whereas if your friend were to look inside a mechanical device (an act of trust on your part) he would quickly find out why there was no need for speakers. But alas we cannot wind the clock back.

Crow: Another sad story. But if you'll forgive it sounds more like a male rather than a female anecdote. The over-muscular approach to winding, the hopeless attempt at repair - both sound like male failings. You weren't a fella in another life, were you Crow?

Plutarch said...

For years and years we had a music box in a red glass ball which we hund on the Christmas tree. A spring loaded mechanism operated by a draws tring played Stille Nacht.

The Crow said...

Might have been, Lorenzo, but I can't remember. (You aren’t indulging in a bit of sexism there, are you, bud?)

More likely, it is my near insatiable desire to know how things work, or at least why. My father was an inventive and self-taught mechanical genius and my favorite haunt was his workshop, either to mess with his tools when he wasn’t around or just to watch him work on things.

I have taken a great many things apart over the years, usually with not-so-good results. However, I rebuilt the carburetor on my second VW beetle, have successfully rewired/repaired quite a few household appliances, and dismantled, cleaned and reassembled (perfectly, by the way) my Pentax SLR.

When I was a youngster, however, that curiosity got me into trouble more often than not. If it’s a sad story you’re after, I have one involving rat traps, pullets and a horrible lesson learned and never forgotten.

(RE: the music box - I remember thinking that if winding the key a little made the box play a certain length of time, then winding it really tight would make it play longer between windings. Maybe it was laziness that time, instead of curiosity.)

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

Plutarch: I think most civilised people have rubbed up against music boxes in their lives. Often they're a test of aesthetic sense vs. sentimentality and on this occasion, at least, most of us seem prepared to concede the latter.

The Crow: Ah yes, the tomboy upbringing; we've touched on it before. Of all your techno-experiences I'm impressed most by the disassembly/reassembly of the Pentax. I am also a Pentax owner (mentioned several times in WW) but the prospect of becoming familiar with its guts never tempted me. For one thing special, teeny-tiny screwdrivers would be necessary.

I was joking about you being fella. You'll find positive proof of this when you read the acknowledgements that appear in Gorgon Times (now despatched to an outfit called Lightning Source who will turn a computer file into a thing with pages. I believe it's called a book.) Cheers.

The Crow said...

Re: the camera – Okay, confession time. I was supervised, by the instructor of the crime scene photography class I took as part of my criminal justice degree. The tool kits were his, but we (seven students) had to “field strip” our cameras and put them back together, with no loose parts. I was the last one to finish.

So much for trying to impress you.

Lucy said...

She's just too honest, that Martha.

When visiting my GI bride auntie and her family in Pennsylvania when I was four, there was a box of old toys from my cousins to entertain me. My favourite thing of all was a music box in the shape of a toy radio, with a knob and a tiny display which moved past a window as it unwound. It played, and illustrated, 'Ten little Indians'. I think I was allowed to bring it home, but somehow the magic of it, like ouzo, fell away when I got it home. I wish I had it now though.

I do have a very small cloisonné enamel one on a key ring which plays Lara's Theme from Dr Zhivago, given me by another, very elderly cousin now deceased.

There's a shop in Dinan which sells a huge range of them, with labelled sample mechanisms which you can wind up with a crank handle outside the shop. I always want to spend ages trying them all out like jelly beans.

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

Crow: I honestly didn't require you to commit harikiri on my blog. I should add if it's a contest between honesty and wit, the latter wins every time.

Lucy: A life enriched by music boxes. I think I might have been prepared to bet on that.