“They come in many sizes and many decorations but all piano music boxes are basically alike in that they are a functioning music box in the shape of a piano. In one sense, this is a delightfully humorous choice of shape for a music box, as pianos are musical instruments that can be very box-like. But the music that they produce is always the same tune.
Western Movie Cliché
We’ve all seen the Western movie saloon scene where there is a dusty, tinkling and spluttering piano in the corner. The piano player is bent hard over the keyboard, brows wrinkled in concentration while cowboys and Indians alike pitch coins into his beer mug. Then, someone shoots the piano player. He falls dead – and the piano keeps on playing. That is because many life-sized piano music boxes were made in the 1800’s and early 1900’s called piano rolls.
Piano rolls work on the mostly the same principles as smaller music boxes that fit on a shelf. A metal cylinder with raised bumps slowly turns. The bump trips a flat hammer, which in itself makes the chime. Only in the case of piano roll piano music boxes, the hammer doesn’t make the noise, but trips a wire to play piano innards. It was a way to merge music box mechanics with the sound of a piano.
Piano rolls aren’t that popular anymore and those that still exist cost thousands of dollars. Unlike a real piano, they can only play the tune on the cylinder. If you wanted to hear another tune, you had to buy another cylinder. It was very much like a record player, in a way. But most piano music boxes today are very small affairs only a few inches across that can be placed on a table or shelf.
Piano music boxes have become nearly as popular as the twirling ballerina on top of a jewelry box. There were many brands that made piano music boxes of various sizes, materials and colors. One of the brands that still survive is the Japanese Sankyo, which also makes the twirling ballerina and angel music boxes. Another is the San Francisco Music Box Company.
Although many bits of piano music boxes are still handmade, you can usually change the tune mechanism to another if you want like changing a record on a record player. You usually have to order these new tunes from specialty shops devoted to music boxes on the Internet.”