How are music box movements tuned - chromatic or scale?
March 31, 2019 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I would like to buy a music box movement and install a custom made cylinder into it. I've got the tune, I've got a plan for making a custom cylinder, but I'm getting hung up on making sure the movement I get will be able to play it.

The tune I would like to use comprises 17 notes of the b minor scale, starting on f#. The cheapest music box movements have 18 notes, but for the life of me I can't figure out whether that's a chromatic scale, a major scale, or whatever.

My assumption is that they are tuned to a major scale, which would be fine as I can use the relative minor. I'd prefer the scale to start on the 5 of the relative minor, since I'd rather not rewrite the tune. If any of the sources I've found for movements actually listed the key / tuning, this would be easy. Instead, they just list the tunes that are available. This is not very helpful!

Does anybody know what to expect from a basic 18 note movement as found on Amazon etc., or have any advice on which tune to choose from e.g. this list?

PS: I know that it's determined by the comb, which is interchangable, so a source for just combs with this info would also be helpful.
posted by dbx to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I only know a bit about Nidec Sankyo movements. Only the very large (≥ 72 notes, $$$) movements are chromatic, and even then there may be the odd note missed out. The others are diatonic at best.

The tune list at Nidec Sankyo might have scale information. It has some extra fields after pieces that look related to scale (but maybe not in a familiar/common notation)
posted by scruss at 5:54 PM on March 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “standard” tuning for a comb, I think each tune comes from a cylinder/comb pair. I imagine there’s some comb reuse for simpler melodies, but even there if a note gets repeated quickly it has to be duplicated on two separate teeth. Not sure what to suggest beyond listening to each of the tunes to see if there’s one that has the notes you need.
posted by doctord at 9:06 PM on March 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's a custom tunes website that provides more insight about the "can't play same note twice in a row" problem, including the possibility that a random comb might have multiple notes on the same pitch to accommodate a particular song.

Have you explored Music Box Maniacs? It's focused on diy music box tunes using paper strips, but perhaps you could adapt for your purpose. The forums have some discussion of tuning, and the online music editor has scales for a few of the diy kits, which may be designed to give you more flexibility than one customized for a particular tune. Note that apparently the pitches are wrong (so like, the Grand Illusion 30 starts on F not C), though the intervals are supposedly okay.

Also, I suppose you could try tuning it if it doesn't have the right notes - perhaps like tuning harmonica reeds.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 9:58 PM on March 31, 2019 [3 favorites]

(there is apparently the Muro Box bluetooth/midi musical box too …)
posted by scruss at 9:04 AM on April 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

There is also a phone app, Music Box Composer, that lets you create songs for 15, 20, 30 and 33 note combs.
posted by domo at 7:33 AM on April 2, 2019

Thanks everyone! Lots of great ideas. The essential problem is about cylinders and combs - the sheet paper music boxes, while very cool, don't solve the problem. The first link in cdefgfeadgagfe's answer seems to corroborate my impression: there simply *is* no standard comb. Time to listen to and transcribe until I find one that works.
posted by dbx at 8:22 AM on April 2, 2019

Oh, I was thinking you could just use one of the combs from a diy sheet paper kit, given the scales for that seem to be known and more flexible (designed to accommodate multiple songs, rather than tailored to a specific one). Not familiar enough with the actual mechanics to know if that would work for you, though.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 10:46 AM on April 2, 2019

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