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Gift Lab: Name that Tune

Product Developer Sarah Stenseng tests out the mechanical music box set with a tune of her own. Is this the perfect gift for music-lovers? Read on to find out.

1. Background research and question

I am no Mozart, no Philip Glass, certainly no Lady Gaga! BUT I did take piano lessons in elementary school, and I can play a mean “Yellow Submarine” on the guitar. Instead of pursuing a career in music, I work in product development at UncommonGoods. I’m very interested in the way that products are fabricated and how they function mechanically.

With this in mind, I was instantly drawn to the mechanical music box set. I love that it allows people to create their own original songs. First you punch holes in paper, then you play via a music box in which all of the mechanisms are exposed.

I decided that I had to get my hands on this product to figure out how it works mechanically, as well as to find out: with my intermediate-level knowledge of music, can I use the mechanical music box set to create a coherent, original song?

2. Hypothesis

I predict that my success will be dependent upon whether or not the product allows for a way to correct potential mistakes (i.e. punching the wrong hole).

3. Experiment

I started out by playing the “Happy Birthday” pre-punched strip, which comes with the set. Click here to listen to what it sounds like. After getting the hang of turning the hand crank, I took a closer look to figure out how exactly the paper strip with holes punched in it was being translated into music.

I found that the music box contains a metal “comb” consisting of 15 metal keys of varying lengths, each of which produces a different note. Each key is adjacent to a corresponding cog with 4 protruding teeth. As I turn the hand crank, the paper strip moves smoothly over the cogs without rotating them. When there’s a punched hole in the paper strip above a particular cog, one tooth catches in the hole and rotates the entire cog forward as the paper strip continues to move. The tooth on the opposite end of the rotating cog strikes the corresponding metal key and produces a resonant note!

After satisfying my curiosity about the mechanical function of the product, I attempted to transcribe a song that I’d written on my guitar onto one of the blank paper strips (each set comes with 3). One of the limitations of the music box is that you can only create songs using notes in the C major scale (the only major scale with no sharps or flats). However, I found that limiting things to the key of C made the process simpler and easier for me.

First, I figured out what notes comprised the basic melody I had written on my guitar, and wrote them down on a piece of scrap paper. The blank paper strip was conveniently labeled with the names of notes, so it was easy to pencil in my melody without having to be able to read music. Then, using the hole puncher that came with the set, I punched out the marks that I had penciled in. I fed the strip into the music box, and turned the crank to play my song.

After hearing my punched holes translated into musical notes, I got excited and decided to add even more notes– embellishments to fill out my skeleton of a melody. Being perhaps a bit overzealous, some of these embellishments did NOT sound good.

Luckily, I read in the instruction manual that I could use scotch tape to cover up any holes that I didn’t want to be played, and effectively “edit” my mistakes. Being able to do this saved my song.

4. Results

With the help of scotch tape to edit my song and correct mistakes, I was able to create a song I was proud of. Have a listen!

5. Conclusion

In a world of mp3 players and auto-tune, I loved that this was a purely mechanical form of recording and playing music. My song became a physical, tactile thing through a simple strip of paper.

I think it was helpful to have a basic knowledge of music, and to have another instrument on hand to use as a reference for testing out my melody before punching any holes. However, because it is so easy to correct mistakes using strips of tape, the mechanical music box set allows for a lot of experimentation and is a great way to express your creativity through music.

Show us what you can create with it!

Written by julia

Julia is the Community Outreach Manager.

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