We had friends visiting this weekend, and one of them has wanted for years to visit the World of Mechanical Music, so it seemed like a good excuse for a day out. I wasn't quite so excited by the concept, but actually, it was incredibly interesting and a lovely place to visit. The artifacts on display ranged from the familiar (such as a collection of gramophones) to earlier and rarer experiments in the recording and playback of music, and the guided tour means you get to see (and hear) many different machines in action.
The oldest piece on display was this barrel organ, whose music is laid out using a series of tacks and staples. These catch the pins as the barrel rotates, and each pin is linked to a different length of pipe at the back of the organ. Several songs could be played from each cylinder, by lining the pins up for a different piece of music.
This method was soon superceded by carefully crafted, fine metal cylinders. These were fitted into beautiful wooden boxes to furnish the homes of the wealthy, often decorated with inlaid wood or painted patterns, although our guide explained that there wasn't always a link between quality of finish and quality of sound!
Some early precursors of the record player had metal or wooden discs, stamped out with holes to represent the tune.
Later developments include a number of self-playing pianos, where rolls of paper tape are used to play the keys of a real piano. Some of the paper rolls had been recorded by virtuoso pianists and composers - we were given the chance to listen to Grieg playing a piece of his own composition, and it was quite spooky to watch the keys moving of their own accord.
As well as being open as a museum, there's an active restoration business here, and most of the music boxes on display are also up for sale... if you have a few thousand pounds to spare. This also means the tour will be slightly different on every visit, as current stock changes; I certainly wouldn't mind going back again one day.
I've also posted some videos of similar instruments if you'd like to see them in action.
And finally, little light entertainment for a Monday afternoon: I've just taken a fun general knowledge quiz about Europe on the Dorling Kindersley website. I'm almost embarrassed to say I only got 15 out of 20 on my first attempt, but geography has never been my strong point and there are some tricky questions like the number of canals in Venice. (At least it highlights the right answer when you get something wrong, so you can learn something along the way.) If you fancy playing the Europe Quiz for yourself, then do come back and let me know how you did!