FAQs  about  MECHANICAL  ORGANS  and  things

or: "Everything you always wanted to know about
mechanical organs, and more" or less (more or less)

 The questioners' names have been kept a secret in order to preserve their ignorance.

Q)  What is a mechanical organ?

A)  Well, in this context, a mechanical organ is an organ that plays by itself.  The only skill required on the part of the operator is knowing how to turn a handle, how to wind up a 10 ton weight, or how to press an on/off switch.

Q)  I've seen something like this at a steam fair, but I thought that there was a man inside the organ playing the music on a keyboard.  How can the organ play by itself?

Q)  Yes there is a man inside, but if you go round the back of the organ you will see that he usually has a pint of beer in one hand, and another pint of beer and a fag* in the other.  You will also see a long length of moving cardboard, with a lot of holes punched in it.  The cardboard is drawn through a mangle at the back of the organ called a 'Key Frame'.  As the holes pass through the key frame, they operate the notes on the organ, thereby producing a musical performance.  The lengths of cardboard can be up to 100 metres long, so they are usually folded up into a zig-zag fashion to enable them to fit through the door.  The block of card thus formed is called a 'Music Book'.  Not all of the holes in the music book will operate musical notes, some will operate the various drums and percussion effects on the organ.  All that the man inside the organ is actually doing is to feed another music book into the key frame every 10 minutes or so; and to shout at the kids as they try and remove the pipes from the front of the organ to use as whistles.
(*a cigarette, not an Adrian's boyfriend)

Q)  How does the organ read the holes in the music?

A)  Basically, there are two systems for doing this: The Keyless system and the Keyed system.  On a keyless system the music passes over a row of holes in a 'Tracker Bar' which are filled with air under pressure.  When a hole in the music passes over, the pressure is released and this operates an air valve in the mechanism of the organ.  On a keyed system the organ has a row of metal keys bouncing up and down through the slots in the music (don't laugh).  As a key rises up in the slot it operates an air valve in the mechanism of the organ.  In both systems, the air valve operates another air valve, which operates another air valve, which admits compressed air to blow the appropriate organ pipes (eventually).

Q)  If your answers to the previous correspondents are true (which I very much doubt) then I think it is a scandal.  People pay good money to get into these steam fairs, under the impression that they are listening to real organs being played by real musicians.  How can this mass deception of the public be justified?

A)  Err.... I don't know that one.  You could always try asking for your money back at the gate.  To prevent future disappointment, before paying your admission fee why not ask the staff at the gate whether the organs are being played by real musicians?  If not, insist that they let you in for free.

Q)  What is the difference between a German organ and a Dutch organ?

A)  That one's easy.  German organs are made in Germany, and Dutch organs are made in France.

Q)  How often should I tune my organ?

A)  As often as possible.  I would say that it should be tuned at least once a year, at the start of the season when the temparature has warmed up.  Organs that are out of tune sound dreadful to anybody with a musical ear (like me).  There is no excuse for playing an out-of-tune organ in public - except for laziness.  Some people use the excuse that too frequent tuning loosens the stoppers in the pipes.  This is not really true as long as the stoppers are a proper fit in the pipes in the first place.  In any case, if it is a choice between repairing the stoppers or playing out of tune, then you should repair the stoppers!   Other people say that if you leave the organ long enough it will come back in tune again!  This is a load of cobblers, and even if it were true you shouldn't be playing in public until it HAS come back in tune again!

Q)  When fair organs were used on the travelling fairgrounds, the showmen couldn't be bothered to keep the organs in tune.  Because of this, I was told that fair organs shouldn't be tuned properly, as they sound much more authentic if they are out of tune.  Is this right?

A)  This is total bunkum, and I shouldn't be surprised if it wasn't balderdash as well.

Q)  Is it possible to tune my organ myself?  (I don't know anything about music).

A)  You can tune your organ quite easily if you buy an Electronic Tuning Meter from a music shop, or by clicking here.  Even the professionals use these meters now, although a few won't admit it.  They are very simple to use.  A built-in microphone picks up the sound of each pipe and the display will tell you the pitch of the pipe (A#, F#, etc.) and whether it is too sharp or too flat.  Providing that you can go around the organ and get each pipe to sound individually (not always as simple as it sounds!)  and don't mind getting your fingers dirty, the job is not too difficult. Obviously, the smaller the organ, the easier it is to do the job.  If it is a large organ and there are many pipes that are out of adjustment you might consider getting professional assistance for the initial tuning, otherwise you may get bogged down in a job that you wish you had never started!  New Service: You can now have your organ tuned by email.

Q)  How is it possible to arrange music for fair organs?

A)  It's easy - you just punch a hole in the cardboard where you want a note to sound using ordinary domestic materials.  If you want two notes to sound, then you have to punch two holes.  Continue in this way until you have made plenty of holes in your cardboard.  If you play the music and find that the holes are in the wrong place, it's easy to stick sellotape over the holes you've made, and start again.

Q)  What other forms of music storage are there, besides cardboard books?

A)  Music for mechanical organs can be stored in a number of ways:  As a series of projections on a rotating cylinder; as a series of projections on a metal disk; as a pattern of holes in a paper roll; as a pattern of holes in a rotating disk; as a pattern of dots on a strip of paper; as a magnetic pattern on a strip of tape; as a magnetic pattern on a rotating disk; as a series of electrostatic charges in a transistorised memory array; or as an optical pattern in a rotating plastic disk.  There may be other forms, but I can't think of them at the moment.

Q)  Which is the best system for storing music?

A)  There is no 'best system'.  Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.  In general, the more compact the music is, the more complex the reading device in the organ has to be.  For instance, a computer disk can store several hours of music, but the organ has to be fitted with a computer to be able to read it;  whereas a barrel is an unbelievably cumbersome method of storing a few seconds of music, but the mechanism of a barrel organ only consists of a few strips of wood and a handful of nails.

Q)  Why does my neighbour (George) complain every time I park my 98 key Gavioli in his front garden and start it up?

A)  How inconsiderate.  Have you tried reporting him to the council?  Why don't you ask him to move house to somewhere a bit quieter, then you might get some more considerate neighbours moving in.

Q)  What is the difference between  a Barrel Organ and a Street Piano.  Are they the same thing?

A)  I am often asked this question, and I welcome the opportunity to clear up the confusion once and for all.  The term 'Barrel Organ' is a misnomer.  A Barrel Organ is actually a street piano with organ pipes on the front.  Whereas a Barrel Piano is a barrel organ without organ pipes on the front.  Just to add to the confusion: A Street Piano consists of a piano mounted inside a barrel organ; and a Street Organ consists of an organ mounted inside a street piano, worked by a paper roll.  There is also an instrument called a Hurdy Gurdy.  This is actually a barrel organ but without the organ or the piano (or the barrel).

Q)  I am new to the organ grinding hobby.  What sort of organ should I get to start off with?

A)  It all depends on how much money you've got, and how serious you are.  Your choice of music will probably dictate the kind of organ to buy.  It is worth remembering that music rolls are far more compact than book music, so if you want to push your organ around on a cart it makes sense to go for this option.  If you want to be even more portable, you can carry the organ around on a strap.  In this case I would recommend something like the Harmonette which plays music stored in small cartridges.  It is not very practical to have to carry music rolls or books around with you in your pockets!  Bear in mind that some people prefer to have an organ that works in the 'old-fashioned' way, rather than using modern technology - but this attitude is changing slowly as people become less techno-phobic.  The general public don't usually care how the organ works anyway, as long as it plays nice music.  If you want the public to be able to see how the organ works, then you would be better off with a book organ, as the music books can be easily seen whilst they are playing.  See my article: Choosing an organ.  Whatever organ you decide to buy though, there is only one choice for music.  Everybody seems to be agreed that the best and the cheapest music is supplied by Melvyn Wright, Mechanical Music Arranger (whoever he is).  Please note that I have no connection whatsoever with this excellent music arranger.  I just happen to have the same name as him, and live in the same house - oh and I supply organ music as well, but my music is nowhere near as good as his.

Q)  Is there any difference between Keyed and Keyless music?

A)  Yes.  Keyed music is always punched as long slots, usually around 4mm wide.  Keyless music can be punched with long slots, or as a series of round holes.  In this case the slots or holes are narrower, usually around 3mm wide.  Keyed music has to be stronger and heavier than keyless music as it has to perform mechanical work in pressing down the keys on the organ.  Of course, keyless organs can also use heavy-duty card, but it is not necessary.  The other important difference is that the slots have to be lengthened slightly on keyed music, and shortened slightly on keyless music.  This is because keyed organs tend to shorten the durations of the notes, whereas keyless organs tend to lengthen the notes slightly.

Q)  Can I play keyed music on my keyless organ?

A)  In theory you can, but it will not play properly.  Because the slots are wider there is a danger that adjacent holes will be uncovered, causing spurious notes to play.  However, because the slots are lengthened in keyed music and keyless organs tend to lengthen the note durations even more, the notes will drag on for too long.  This can lead to some unpleasant effects similar to holding down the sustaining pedal on a piano.

Q)  Can I play keyless music books on my keyed organ?

A)  Yes you can - but you can only play them once, because they will be ripped to shreds.

Q)  Why is it that some organs of 105 keys are drowned out by the sound of a 21 note Trueman playing 2 miles away?

A)  This is because certain types of mechanical organ were built to play indoors rather than outdoors.  These are Dance Organs or Cafe Organs.  These organs were never meant to be played outdoors, and when you see them at rallies you can tell why!  If you look behind the fronts of these organs you will probably only find a handful of pipes.  That's why the pipework is always covered up by an elaborate front.

Q)  Do I have to get permission to play my organ in public?  If I went down to the park, got my organ out and started playing it to passers-by, would I get into trouble?

A)  I'm sorry, we only want questions about mechanical music.

Q)  If I did start to play my organ in public, and some big bloke came up to me and punched me on the nose.  What would I do?

A)  You could try bleeding.  If that didn't work, you should ask him for his name and address, and then ask him to look after the organ, whilst you go and fetch a policeman.

Q)  Which is the best system - Keyed or Keyless?

A)  This is a hornet's nest, as everybody believes that their organ is the best.  Speaking as a music arranger there is no doubt whatsoever that the keyless system is far superior in its musical capabilities.  Because the slots in keyed music are wider than the distance between the keys, the musical arrangement has to be modified to prevent the whole book from falling to pieces when adjacent notes are punched out.  This problem is made worse by the fact that notes also have to be lengthened slightly in keyed music, so each note tends to break through into the following note as well!  Also, it is not possible to use strengthening bridges on long notes, as in the keyless system; and the keys tend to rip the card up anyway. It is surprising how many simple musical passages are completely unplayable on keyed organs.  Basically, the keyed system is a complete disaster where complex musical arrangements are concerned.

Q)  Does the keyed system have any advantages at all?

A)  I can't think of any!  The bleed holes in keyless organs do need to be adjusted from time to time, but so do the keys on a keyed organ.  One well-respected organ builder in the Midlands told me that whenever he was called out to a problem with a keyed organ, he could almost guarantee that the problem would be somewhere in the key frame; and it would be almost impossible to fix it without taking the whole thing to pieces.  There is an opinion that keyed organs can play music in a worse state of repair than keyless organs can, but as the music has probably been damaged by the keys themselves, this argument is rather spurious.

Q)  Why are keyed organs still being made?

A)  There are three reasons for this.  The first reason is traditional: "Our grandads made keyed organs, so we will make keyed organs, so there".   The second reason is that new organs are usually built to play music which is already available.  There is no keyless music available for the common Dutch street organ scales because these organs have always been keyed.  Therefore, all new Dutch street organs have to be keyed in order to be able to play the available music books.  Thirdly, some organ builders are not clever enough to be able to design and make a quick and reliable keyless action - especially some of those living in France and Holland, oh and Belgium.

Q)  Does this mean that all keyed organs are rubbish?

A)  No no - Far from it.  Only some of them are rubbish.  Others are very good organs, made by master organ builders at the pinnacle of their artistic careers; and are very expensive to buy second-hand.

Q)  What is the difference between a Fair organ and a Street organ?

A)  A fair organ was built to play in a fairground and a street organ wasn't.  A fair organ needs plenty of volume to be heard over the sound of people screaming and throwing up on the rides.  A street organ doesn't need so much volume, as the streets are not normally filled with hundreds of drunken yobs shouting abuse at everybody who goes past - except in Newcastle (oops - there goes all my Geordie customers).

Q)  What is the difference between a Steam organ, a Fair organ, and a Band organ?

A)  Well in the olden days before fair organs were invented, they used to be driven by steam engines.  This is an engine made up from the pieces of an old traction engine, a central heating boiler, and a rubber hot water bottle.  This is why they were called steam organs, but really, they had nothing to do with steam.  Then, when showmen invented fairgrounds they used the old steam organs to provide music to attract people to their fairs.  The organs were then powered by electricity, but curiously they weren't called 'Electric organs' - they were called 'Fair organs'.  This is just as well, because when Electric organs actually did arrive on the scene some years later, they would have had to have been called something else.  In America, these organs weren't powered by steam or electricity.  They were called 'Band organs' because they were powered by large rubber bands (similar to aeroplanes).

Q)  Can you help me fix the lights on my trailer this weekend?

A)  No, I don't know anything about trailers.

Q)  Why is it that some organs with only 20 keys have got over 1000 pipes?

A)  Well they haven't got quite that many pipes - more like 23.  This is because organ pipes come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and they all make a different type of sound.  It is possible to change the tone of the organ by switching off certain pipes and switching others on.  This is done automatically by having holes in the music that control the various ranks of pipes in the organ.  These extra ranks of pipes are called 'Registers' in a mechanical organ, and they are the same as the 'Stops' on a manually played organ.  Multiple pipes can also be connected to each key in order to build up the volume of the organ (stop sniggering).

Q)  What are the bleed screws for on my organ, and how do I know whether they neeed adjusting or not?

A)  They do need adjusting.  All keyless organs are fitted with tiny holes in the mechanism to equalise the pressure when a hole in the music has passed over the tracker bar in the key frame.  The size of these holes is so critical to the operation of the organ that the holes are provided with adjusting screws which can be used to open or close the holes slightly.  These adjusting screws are visible on the primary action of the organ, and there will be one screw for every tube leading from the key frame.  As the organ is playing, these bleed holes will gradually get clogged up with dust until there comes a time when certain notes will not cut off sharply enough.  This prevents those notes from repeating properly.  All owners of keyless organs should keep a test book handy, which will have a section for testing the repetition of each note (called the 'bobble' test).  The test book will identify any notes which do not repeat fast enough.  It is then a simple job to unscrew the bleed screw very slightly in order to bring it back to its correct size so that the note passes the repetition test.  I can supply test books, complete with instructions,  for most keyless organs.

Q)  Often, when I play my organ in the street, some stroppy shop assistant will come out and ask me if I can turn the volume down a bit. How can I do this?

A)  You can do this by moving the organ so that it faces into the shop doorway and putting on a continuous book.  Then lock the organ door and go and sit in the pub for the rest of the day.

Q)  Can you tell me who invented the organ grinder?  My mother has always told us that it was her great grandfather, I don't know his name though.  Any history that you could give me would be of great interest.

A)  Well, this is a tricky one Mrs Graham Bell.  I have managed to find out that your great grandfather's name was Alexander, although I have no idea what his surname was.  He invented the organ grinder in 1876 when he was messing about with an old telephone on his workbench.  The story goes that he accidentally spilt some battery acid on the floor and he shouted over the telephone to his assistant: "Sherlock Holmes, come here - I want you".  And thus the organ grinder was born.  However, it was another 100 years before the first street organ was invented, so the organ grinder didn't catch on straight away, as he had nothing to do.

Q)  I have just bought a new organ and need to buy some music for it.  What sort of music should I buy?

A)  Well if it is a paper roll organ you should buy paper roll music, and if it is a book organ you should buy cardboard book music.

Q)  No I meant what tunes should I buy.

A)  Oh I see.  Well I would suggest that you buy a selection of different types to start off with:  Old-time songs, Waltzes, Marches, etc.  Get music that the general public will recognise and identify with.  Childrens' music goes down very well because its attracts the kids, who in turn attract the parents to the organ.  Buy music that is lively and cheerful, the public don't want to listen to funeral dirges (not even at funerals).  Another important thing to remember is not to buy all your music from one arranger.  Listening to the same syle all the time can become boring (unless it is arranged by me of course).

Q)  My neighbour keeps parking his 98 key Gavioli in my front garden and starting it up?  I have tried complaining but it doesn't make any difference.  What should I do?

A)  Why don't you buy it from him?  Then you can park it in his garden and get your own back.  By the way, is your name George?

Q) How old is the 20-note Raffin scale? Do you know if it was created by Raffin, or if it is copied off an older organ.

A) Well I'm not too sure about the complete history of the 20 note roll scale.  It is popularly known as the 20 note Raffin scale because the vast majority of 20 note organs have been built by Josef Raffin, but Raffin did not devise the scale.  The scale was first devised by Carl Frei Snr in the 1950s.  As you know, Carl Frei was the German organ builder who built all the Dutch street organs - in Germany.  Why Carl Frei would be interested in a 20 note scale to work his 90 key street organs is a mystery. Equally mysterious is how a master music arranger could devise a scale so terrible that it can't even handle the simplest melodies without playing all the wrong notes.  Better 20 note scales already existed when this scale was devised.  Although Raffin did not devise the scale, what Raffin did do, to his eternal credit, was to scrap the useless spool system and replace it with his own design of spool which simply dropped into position.  The Raffin spool system is a huge improvement on the original system as it incorporates tracking guides in the roll box and no longer depends upon the spool position or dimensions for accurate tracking of the music.  The spool is actually wider than the paper, and is free to float sideways in order to accomodate any irregular winding of the paper on the spool.  Almost all hand-turned roll playing organs built today use the Raffin drop-in spool system.  The few builders who still stick to the older system do so because they do not want to be seen to be copying their competitor's ideas, no matter how brilliant they are.  They would rather struggle with a system which doesn't work properly.  Incidentally, I think the 31 note roll scale was developed by Raffin

Q)  Why do some hand turned organs have their rolls in stupid airtight compartments with a glass lid on the top?

A)  Here again, I think we have Josef Raffin to thank for freeing the roll from its cumbersome glass case.  The problem with the traditional keyless action is that the holes in the music are sensed by compressed air as it vents from the holes in the tracker bar.  Unfortunately, this compressed air tends to push the roll away from the tracker bar, thereby ruining the airtight seal underneath the paper. In organs operated by cardboard book music, this problem is eliminated by a spring-loaded grooved roller which presses the cardboard hard down onto the tracker bar.  This solution isn't possible with paper music as the pressure of the roller would buckle and tear the paper, and cause it to wander off track - with disastrous results.  This problem doesn't arise with other roll operated instruments like player pianos, because they are operated by a vacuum, which tends to suck the paper onto the tracker bar and actually improves the seal.  Some large paper roll pipe organs actually have a pressure supply to blow the pipes, and a separate vacuum supply to work the action and read the music.  Unfortunately, this solution isn't possible within the confines of a small hand-turned street organ.  One method of overcoming this problem is to put the entire tracker bar and paper roll inside an airtight box; and feed compressed air into the box to force the paper down onto the tracker bar, and also to operate the action through the holes in the music.  Not a very elegant arrangement, but at least it works.  What Raffin discovered (if I am crediting this discovery to the wrong person, somebody will let me know) was that it is not necessary to have a heavy spring pressure to hold the paper down onto the tracker bar - in fact it is not even necessary to have any springs at all!  He discovered that the weight of a small brass idler roller riding on the paper was enough to overcome the pressure of the air underneath, yet it was not sufficient to damage the paper or cause it to veer off course.  This simple and elegant solution only works because paper rolls are smooth, and not subject to any disturbing forces as they travel over the tracker bar.  A heavy spring pressure is necessary to hold down a cardboard book because the cardboard is heavier and stiffer, and the air will leak out at the folds if is not pressed down hard.

Q)  Why is it that most German fair organs have got red curtains on the front where the pipes should be?  What are they trying to cover up?  Do they use loudspeakers or something?

A)  Well, this is something of a mystery because, unlike some organs where the absence of pipework is skillfully covered up by an elaborate front (without pipes), German organs are usually crammed so full of pipes that you could chuck half of them away and you wouldn't notice they were missing (except that the organ wouldn't play properly).  There is a theory that the red cloth in front of the pipes is to prevent them from going out of tune when the sun comes out.  This could be slightly true.  A simple experiment would easily prove this one way or the other.  Perhaps a Ruth owner could try tearing the cloth away on a hot day and letting us know the results.  If you do tear the cloth away, you will notice that the pipework is not a pretty sight.  The pipes are often arranged in a very haphazard fashion, with some pipes facing one way, some facing the other, some pipes up-side down; and all in a totally random order.  This is probably the clue as to why the pipes are covered up, as it allows the organ builder to put the pipes where he wants them, rather than having to arrange them symetrically.  As one German organ builder once said: "It is hard enough to make these bloody trombones speak at all, without having to make them look good as well".  Although he would have said this in a German accent.

Q)  Somebody once told me that if a Martian spaceship landed next to my fair organ when it was playing, they wouldn't be able to work out what it was doing.  Surely this can't be right?

A)  Believe it or not, it is right.  Although Martians are advanced enough to be able to build UFOs and make circles in farmers' fields; they don't have any ears.  They would think the organ was a just a big wooden box full of springs and levers which didn't actually do anything, so they would probably blast it with their laser guns, and set fire to your trailer with a box of matches.  Be aware that cheap insurance may not cover you when this happens, so be prepared.

Q)  I am of the opinion that some items on this page are a bit silly.  How is it that you can write such marvellous music with the one hand, and talk so much rubbish with the other?

A)  I don't know.  I suppose it's because I'm ambidextrous.

Standard Disclaimer:
The information on this page was given to me by a bloke down the pub.  I cannot be held responsible if it is a load of rubbish.  Neither am I responsible for any harm, loss, damage, waste of time, unintentional pregnancies, insomnia, or premature baldness caused by anyone foolish enough to act upon this information.

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