The Barrel Organ Lives on Like a Smooth Criminal

In our recent foray of covering weird and uncommon instruments, we've touched on a couple of instruments related to the barrel organ. While they all function based on pre-determined music programmed out on a roller, some of them work like a harp or piano with strings being struck while others resemble a kalimba with tines being plucked.

barrel organ street performer

But the barrel organ works, as you've guessed, using pressurized air pushed through carefully tuned tubes just like a regular keyboard-based organ. The difference is that there is no player pressing keys to open and close valves. This is all done by the barrel that is turned by the player using a hand crank.

Smooth Criminal on Barrel Organ

As you keep reading this article, you'll enjoy hearing this gentleman perform Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson on his own roller organ, oddly situated in the middle of a wood pile. Notice how this one works, using paper with holes punched in it at specific intervals.

It's interesting to see people keeping interesting aspects of the cultures of the past alive, especially when related to music. These organs could be huge and majestic, found in churches, on fairgrounds, in theatres, sports stadiums, circuses, and more. Smaller ones were used by street performers to scrape up a dime back in the day. Now they're relics to be found in oddity museums or on YouTube as people keep the craft alive.

How the Barrel Organ Works

In the old days, the barrels were constructed and treated with care because even the slightest bit of damage or misalignment can change the quality of the resulting music. All barrel instruments require some form of pins to press the keys as they slide by, which then open the valves so the air can musically toot out of the pipes. The original barrels were featured pins that were created using pieces of staples.

old barrel organ pins

The short nail-like pieces create instant notes while the longer staples hold the valves open longer for quarter notes and half notes, etc. The meticulous detail and careful work of the past is no longer necessary though.

hand punched organ paper

In the present, the two preferred methods are using punched paper tape or having barrels that can accept moveable pins so one barrel can be reprogrammed over and over. The paper method makes more sense since you can simply change paper rolls to change songs. Instead of pressing keys to open valves, the holes are read by various types of tracker bars, which can use mechanical, electrical, or optical means of reading the notes to open the valves.

If you think about it, this technology made a lot of sense as other forms of data were being encoded on punched paper or punch cards. It didn't take long for digital storage to render it meaningless, but it also wouldn't take much, like a crazy magnetic pulse from the sun, to erase or corrupt a lot of our data storage. Maybe the hole punch method would make for a longer-lasting method, potentially lasting hundreds of thousands of years if punched in or stored in a titanium vault.

It's interesting to think about and see how far we've come, and just as interesting to listen to. It reminds me a lot of the MIDI revolution of the 1980's, if you go by the visual aspects of the paper rolls and the sound of the organ. It looks a lot like the piano rolls of our modern digital audio workstations.

Check out our other posts on barrel operated instruments like the crazy Marble Machine (definitely check out the Marble Machine!) and the Sharpsichord.