Music and Mechanics

Creating music out of thin air

The earliest working version of a barrel organ dates from 1502, but written references to the mechanism go back many centuries before that. As the barrel of the organ rotates, its teeth raise levers which allow currents of air to be sent into pipes of different pitches.

The barrel organ differs from another street instrument, the hurdy-gurdy, although they are sometimes mistaken for one another. The main difference between them is that the barrel organ can only play the tunes that have been ‘programmed’ into each barrel; the hurdy gurdy is an instrument that can be played manually. We’ll look at the hurdy-gurdy later on.

Air is also used to play the pianola: a roll of paper is stretched over a brass bar with 88 holes - one for each note of the piano - and air is pumped using pedals so that the paper is sucked tightly against the bar. Whenever there’s a hole in the paper, air goes through a hole in the bar - it’s this sharp current of air that causes the note of the piano to play.

The birth of the pianola meant that people were able to have pianos in their homes without needing to be able to play them well. Celebrated pianists and composers - including Rachmaninov - recorded or ‘cut’ pianola rolls so that their playing could be represented on a real piano. As a result, these pianola rolls often resulted in a better listening experience than the early audio recordings which had a lot of surface noise.

The pianola rolls cut by Rachmaninov are considered by many to be the finest recordings he made: these rolls were cut at the very peak of his performing career, whereas his audio recordings were made towards the end of his life.