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Crank Up the Fun with Music Boxes and Coding!

Imagine a world without digital music players or streaming services. Instead, music comes from a tiny box that tinkles with a crank of a handle. That's the magic of the music box, a centuries-old invention that continues to charm listeners of all ages. But beyond the delightful melodies, music boxes hold a surprising secret: a connection to the history of technology. This article will unlock the inner workings of these fascinating instruments, explore their unexpected link to the past, and guide you through a fun activity that lets your students create their own music box masterpieces.

Cover image for blog post


Amazon has several hand crank music boxes, including one by Ejoyous and FVTvogue. Each one costs about $20. I would suggest buying enough music boxes for about a quarter of your largest class and buying extra paper strips. You can buy the paper strips as a roll or as individual sheets. 


Music Boxes

Music boxes have been around for hundreds of years, long before records, CDs or streaming services. These little boxes use a clever trick to play music. They have a row of metal teeth, like a comb, each a different size to make a different tone. A spinning barrel with bumps on it plucks the teeth, playing a song. The closer the bumps are together the faster the rhythm, and the further apart the slower the rhythm. Each time the barrel spins around, the music starts again, like a tiny mechanical orchestra.

Until the late 1970s, punch cards were the most common way to input information into a computer.

Music boxes show how technology connects across different eras and devices. In the 1800s, weaving machines called Jacquard looms used punched cards with holes in them to instruct the machine what kind of pattern to weave. This is similar to how the bumps on the music box barrel tell it what song to play. This same idea of punched cards was later used in player pianos, which had long sheets of paper with holes to play music. Player pianos were very popular until they were replaced with records and radios. Amazingly, punch cards were the primary way to program computers all the way up to the 1970s. They even helped crunch the numbers for the moon landing.


Kick things off by asking your students if they've ever seen a music box. Chances are, some of them have one at home or have seen one before. Let them share what they know about music boxes. You can also show your own music boxes (if you have any). The presentation slideshow has vidoe examples of various music boxes and one video that explains how music boxes work. Demonstrate how to use it, including the proper way to insert the paper strips. Most importantly, let the students crank the handle themselves and play the music box. This hands-on experience will give them a firsthand understanding of how the music box translates those paper strip holes into beautiful melodies.

Image of music box

The holes on the paper strip are the key for both the pitch and the length of each note. Just like on sheet music, holes higher on the page play higher notes and notes lower on the page, play lower notes. However, we represent the duration of a note in another way. The space between the holes indicates the length of a note instead of musical marks like half notes, quarter notes, etc. When holes are punched closer together, the notes are shorter. When holes are punched farther apart, the notes last longer.

Before getting hands-on with the paper strips, students will code their songs digitally with Song Maker. Song Maker is an online method of creating the same code that goes on the paper strip. An advantage of starting with Song Maker is that students can fix mistakes easily. Both Song Maker and the paper strips use a two-octave range in the key of C, making them perfect partners. To cater to different skill levels, we have three song sheets to choose from. The easiest option lets students simply copy the notes into Song Maker. The next level provides both the notes and the beat for each note. And the most challenging option requires reading regular sheet music. Once they've coded their masterpiece in Song Maker, students should play it back for you or a classmate to make sure it sounds perfect.

Example of music strip for music boxes

Once students have their songs coded in Song Maker, it's time to translate that digital code into the physical language the music box understands. This involves transferring the notes from Song Maker onto the paper strip, which acts as a musical map. Students will carefully mark the note placements with a pencil onto the paper strip with intersecting lines that correspond to Song Maker's notes. Think of these lines like a grid – the horizontal line shows the note itself (C, D, E, etc.), while the vertical line indicates its rhythm (whole note, half note, and so on). Just like checking a map before a road trip, it's important to double-check everyone's paper strips for accuracy before they start punching holes. Precise hole placement is critical – the music box relies on these holes to play the song correctly. Finally, with careful concentration, students can punch clean holes directly on their marked notes. Now comes the moment of truth: they can crank the handle and hear their creations come to life on the music box.

After hearing their songs come alive on the music box, it's time for some scientific exploration. Have students take those same songs for a spin on a variety of surfaces such as tambourines, drums, glass, wood, or metal. As students play their music box creations on each surface, ask them to listen closely. How does the sound change? Does the melody sound brighter on the metal surface, or perhaps warmer on the wood? 

This exploration is a springboard for a fascinating discussion about the science of sound. Different surfaces vibrate in unique ways, affecting the sound waves that reach our ears. Think about it – the way a music box sounds on metal might have a sharper quality, similar to a bright trumpet or clarinet. Wood, on the other hand, might produce a warmer tone, reminiscent of a mellow flute or saxophone. By experimenting with different surfaces, students can begin to understand how the materials instruments are made from contribute to their distinct sounds.


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