Music and Mechanics

Forks, lamellophones and music boxes

The use of Robert Hooke’s sound wheel as a tuning device was succeeded by the tuning fork, invented in 1711 by the trumpeter and lutenist, John Shore. The tuning fork emits a very pure tone at an exact frequency when its ends are struck. The sound can be amplified by placing the handle of the fork on a resonating surface. While a stringed or wind instrument will go out of tune and need retuning, the tuning fork can be carried about in a pocket and is guaranteed to emit the same note every time it’s struck. The invention of the tuning fork enabled musicians to tune their instruments to the correct pitch quickly.

The British Library has in its possession a tuning fork which once belonged to Ludwig Van Beethoven. Beethoven gave this tuning fork to the violinist George Bridgetower and initially dedicated his Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower. However, the two seem to have quarrelled and Beethoven rededicated his sonata. You can hear the sound that the tuning fork still makes here!

A group of instruments that are similar to the tuning fork are known as lamellophones. These instruments are  found all over Africa in many different shapes and sizes and given many different names, for example, mbira, lukembe, kalimba and nyonga-nyonga. The way that the instrument is made and played varies from region to region - but it consists of keys (or lamellae) mounted on a board. When the keys are bent and released, they make a sound. The longer the key, the lower the note. These keys are generally made from metal - sometimes hammered out bicycle or umbrella spokes - but for some instruments they are made from flexible wood or cane.

But what’s all this got to do with mechanical instruments? Well, the structure of these instruments is very similar to the music box.

The musical box is played in the same way as the African lamellophone but, rather than manually, it’s played mechanically: as the wheel or cylinder turns, the raised teeth pull and release the tuned lamellae. The musical box started out in the early 19th century as Swiss watchmakers discovered that metal strips could be used as sounding bells. This led to the development of a barrel with a series of projecting teeth that pluck out a tune on a comb of metal strips as the barrel rotates.

The musical box was then modified to play from discs rather than from barrels. The advantage of using discs was that they took up less space and so it was possible to store more musical tunes. The first audio recordings were also made on cylinders rather than discs and, again, the space-saving advantages of the disc won the day. The ‘Reginaphone’ you see here was able to play both music discs and phonographic discs.