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Make your own music box kit

The other day I found this DIY music box kit over at Think Geek, but they were out of stock.

So I found a supplier in the UK, called Grand Illusions. They actually carry two models, including one with a larger number of tines (20 tines covering a 2 1/2 octave diatonic range ). Naturally I got the big one, and a packet of extra blank strips. :)

Now I’m wondering if I can use my Mindstorms parts to build a Lego robot that will punch the holes and turn the crank, so I can automatically convert MIDI files to music box strips… We’ll see. Right now I’m just having fun making stripey patterns.


Well here’s my first hand-punched piece (aside from the stripey pattern shown above) : A little music box etude based on an old piano piece of mine. Took about an hour to plan and an hour to punch.

Music Box Etude #1

I found it helpful to place dots on the paper with a red marker first, so I didn’t have to do too much thinking about alignment when punching the holes. When I was done punching the holes, the table was littered with little notes.

17 Responses to “Make your own music box kit”

  1. gurdonark Says:

    You’re re-invigorating the term “piano roll composer”.

  2. drawclose Says:

    this is gorgeous and awesome. love it!


  3. jon Says:

    Beautiful Music… I have recently become interested in Music Boxes…

    How do you know where to put the dots? Is it completely by trial and error? How do the pros produce music on discs or drums?

    It would be interesting to see a write-up about just how they make such complex music out of metal discs or drums. I can’t imagine it’s just trial and error.


  4. jon Says:

    just a clarification to my question….

    Obviously the notes are discrete (because of the discrete tines), what I’m asking about is how to calculate the placement along the time-axis of the disc or drum.

    With all the 8th and 16th notes (not to mention grace notes) that can be heard from complex music boxes, it is astounding that such timing can be created in punched metal or paper! Are their any tricks to doing this?


  5. jbum Says:

    It isn’t trial and error – although I imagine you could make some interesting stuff using trial and error…

    For the music box, I knew which notes were available, and worked out the piece I wanted to make on the piano, using those notes.

  6. jon Says:

    Just a clarification…

    Clearly there are discrete notes due to discrete prongs on the comb. My question has more to do with the timing. On these disks there are different speeds that the surface of the disk moves (from the center to the edge) and so the placement of the holes along the “time axis” seems like it would be tricky.

    how, exactly, is that done?

    I guess with the paper strip (or a drum), where all the points on the paper (or drum) pass the comb at the same time, one could mark off the 8th and 16th notes. But how, do they make the disks?

    Thanks tons!

  7. jbum Says:

    In the case of the disc I made with Jack Perron, I wrote software that converts a MIDI file into a list of coordinates that can be used by his disc punching equipment. The coordinates are specified as tine#, degree pairs. For most of his clients, I think
    Jack uses similar software of his own design.

  8. jon Says:

    Ah, the convenience of modern computational power! LOL

    Were the disks in the old days made by punch press? Was there a mathematical method for locating the punches? Was it something like a printing press?

    Thanks for the delightful information!

  9. jbum Says:

    There is indeed a mathematical method of locating the punches, and I imagine it could have been done by marking the disc with a ruler and protractor, or better yet, by stamping a master disc with an ink grid. I believe there were machines for duplicating discs once a master was punched.

    Jack Perron at Hens Tooth Discs probably know all about how it was actually done…

  10. Christian Huygen Says:

    The piece itself is quite lovely. I particularly liked the intricate syncopations at the end. Do you like Conclon Nancarrow? I often like the ideas better than the actual pieces.

  11. KrazyDad » Blog Archive » Möbius Music Box Says:

    […] remember that music box kit I was playing with a few months ago? Vi Hart had the brilliant idea of twisting the paper into a Möbius strip! This effectively […]

  12. jbum Says:

    I find Nancarrow fascinating, but, like a lot of new music that I like, such as Cage, Ligeti, and Xenakkis, I don’t generally listen to it for pleasure in the car. I find Composers that work in a more tonal realm, such as Steve Reich and John Adams easier on the ears.

    The problem with the ideas being more charming than the listening experience is a common problem with new music. Our ears are not as accepting of novelty as our eyes.

    I *do* like listening to more challenging composers in a concert setting, however, when I’m ready to be attentive.

  13. love it Says:

    Where do i buy the supplies??

  14. jbum Says:

    I got it from Grand Illusions:

  15. Crystal Hanner Says:

    I got mine in the US at:

    They have the extra blank paper too!

  16. Ravyn Says:

    An amazing idea for a gift. I’d like to transcribe some sheet music (it’s my partner’s favourite song) onto the paper, but I’m a bit of a piano novice, any ideas on how I’d go about doing that?

  17. fireseed Says:

    Awesome! now you just need to learn how to make an electric one that you can program your own notes into, that’s what I am after.
    I want to make a heart shaped programmable music box key chain for my love.