Music Box Guide
for paper roll music boxes
By Hanneke Debie
This is a guide written about hand cranked music boxes, which takes paper rolls punched with holes as input.
In this guide I will tell you where you can find them, how you can compose music for the paper rolls and punch them, and the little tips and tricks I have come across in the community.
There is a caveat: I have quite some experience with 20 and 30 tone music boxes, but none with the 15 tone music boxes. However, they are all engineered in the same way, so the general tips and tricks should still apply.
This guide would not have been possible without the community as musicboxmaniacs.com and wintergatan. So thanks!!
Paper roll music boxes come in 3 types: 15 tones, 20 tones and 30 tones. The 15 tones and 20 tones only have whole notes, like the white keys of a piano. The 30 tone music boxes are chromatic, which means they also have some of the black piano key notes. This creates a wider range of possible melodies.
If you want a wide range, 30 tones may be for you. But they come with a caveat: 30 tone music boxes tend to be a bit more fragile and are a bit more heavy to crank. I think that's because there is more pressure in the mechanics; instead of 20 tones it has to drive 30. This creates more pressure on the cranking mechanism, making it a bit harder to crank for longer durations, and puts more stress on the gears. However, on the bright side, there are repair options if something goes wrong, and I'll get back to that later.
The brand names of the DIY music boxes which you can use to find them are as follows:
On certain music box composing tools/websites you may see a 60 note option. Such music boxes don't exist, they are just added as an option so that people have a greater range of notes to experiment with,
If you live in the UK or in Europe you can buy 20 or 30 tone music boxes from the grand illusions website. On a side note - in Europe you may get a popup saying that they don't deliver to your country. Contact their customer support, they may be able to help you and deliver after all.
For 15 tone music boxes, you can turn to kikkerland.
You can also always turn to amazon, which carries all three types of music boxes and music papers. You can also find a variation of the 30 tone music box there with copper gears. You’ll find them under the brand name Wingostore and YouTang. The dimensions and looks are exactly the same as Grand Illusions. At the time of writing, I don’t know if there is a difference in quality between the brands.
When you buy a music box, you will always get the hole puncher and a few empty paper strips in the package. So you'll always be ready to get started right away.
Be careful when creating music for a 30 note music box, the notes on the strips aren’t correct. More details are later in this document.
You can buy music boxes with copper gears on amazon. Copper gears tend to be more durable, but there's a downside too - they make much more noise. You can also consider buying a copper gear replacement set, and replace the smallest nylon gear of a normal music box with the copper version. The smallest wheel is most likely to break, and will receive the most benefit from being more durable. This minimizes the noise addition while giving the best durability bonus.
The basics are relatively simple. The paper that you feed into the music box has lines. Each line corresponds to a certain note. Music paper looks more or less like this:
15 tone music paper
You see that at the start you see the note names next to the lines, so you know which line is which note. But before we proceed, one other caveat: when you have a 30 tone music box, it's very likely that whatever paper you bought or got in your music box package has the wrong notes next to the lines. A list of the real notes is added in the addendums at the end of this document.
When you run out of music box paper, you can always buy more online. Normal paper won't work, you need a certain thickness. If the paper is too thin the music box won't 'pick up' the paper as you start cranking.
Adjusting note timing
When you punch a hole on that line and play the paper hole, it triggers that tone. To be exact - the end of the hole triggers the tone. This means that if a note is triggered a bit too early, you can extend the holeand the tone is triggered later.
Quickly repeating notes
There is one limitation to keep in mind when composing or arranging pieces for music boxes; the same note can't be played in rapid succession. This is because the hooks which trigger the music comb need a small bit of time to reset. Different notes can play in quick succession though.
The top distance is the minimum distance subsequent notes must have to play.
In different tools you can often choose the tempo in which the preview will play. Stick with a tempo between 60 and 95 BPM. Anything faster will eventually sound slower when you actually play it on your box, because you can’t crank fast enough.
This is especially important because certain tools have a higher bpm set as default.
There are a few tools which can aid you in composing and arranging music box music. I will list them here:
Most or all tools will mark 'illigal' notes - those are notes that the music box wouldn't be able to play because they are too close to each other.
I recommend giving all the options a try and to see what works best for you. You can also exchange your work between music box composer and music box maniacs by exporting it as midi on one end and importing it on the other end.
One other point I want to make; when you use these tools to make tunes for the 30 note boxes, the tunes as printed on the paper strips (so, the wrong notes) are used. However, even if you use a strip made in that way, the melody should turn out fine, but it’s transposed.
If you want to have the option where the tone you enter is the tone you get, use the tool from musicbox maniacs, and use the option ‘Grand Illusions 30 (F scale)’.
There are a few ways to get started with composing.
If you have a midi file with music that you like, you can start by importing that into the composing tools. However, if notes aren't present on the music box, they will be left out or shifted. So you will likely have to do some manual work.
A good tip would also be to install a midi editor program. MidiEditor is a free one that you can try. You can use that to disable the percussion tracks. If you don’t, those will get imported as notes as well. Music box maniacs also allows you to pick which midi track you want to import, which can also help.
You can also compose by crafting a midi piece yourself and import that. This is how the band wintergatan craft their music box pieces.
If you already know the notes, it's easy to fill them in. Keep the technical limitations of the music box in mind.
Arrange pieces by ear or just come up with your own piece!
You can also find lots of melodies online that other people have created. My first recommendation is musicboxmaniacs. There is a great library of melodies for different types of music boxes, you can listen to the melody in midi format, and the export options are good. There are a few things to keep in mind when looking for music:
If you look for someone else to arrange or compose a custom piece for you, can you try on fiverr (link for instructions). There are also people on etsy who create custom pieces. You have to use your own googly-fu here though.
When your composition is finished, you can export it as a pdf. To get it on your paper strips, there are 2 ways: copy the notes onto proper music box paper strips and taping the copied paper on your strips.
Taping on your strips
When you plan to tape the printed paper on your strips, keep the following in mind:
Drawing notes on the paper strips
Sometimes you run into issues with a music box. Here are a few things that can help with fixing it.
When this happens, use a crosshead screwdriver to remove the cranking mechanism.
As you can see, this also allows you to remove the cylinders. By doing that, you should be able to remove the paper from the box and reassemble the box afterwards.
This is most likely due to the gears. There are a few possible causes:
You have copper gears
Copper gears make way more noise than nylon gears do. They are more durable, yes, but noisy. There is a fix - you can replace a few gears with nylon gears. The gear that needs the greatest durability in a music box is the smallest gear, circled below.
If you replace all the gears with nylon gears and only retain the smallest gear as a copper gear. This minimizes the noise while making the most of the copper durability.
This issue is more likely to happen with 30 note music boxes.
When you hear a rattle and notice a greater resistance every few turns, the gears are likely out of alignment or a gear tooth is broken. The most likely gear with the issue is the smallest gear (see picture above). When this is the case, every 3-4 turns you notice the resistance and/or a skip.
To test the issue without a music paper, press down the white cylinder to create the pressure like paper does and crank slowly. Check what the gears do.
You can also double check the gears by removing the cranking part (see picture on previous page). If no tooth seems to be missing, then the gears are misaligned. Also here, the smallest gear is more often the culprit.
To fix this particular misalignment, you need pliers.
Look at the part that is indicated. By moving this steel bit very gently and very little left or right (red)- or on some back cases back and forth (blue) you can move the gears back in alignment. Check the music box with every little correction you make, because if you over do it, you can make matters worse. I have spent some time cursing at myself in the past with a jammer music box - though I managed it after 30 more minutes of wheedling.
You can buy replacement parts at two places: and amazon. In amazon you can buy copper gears, and grand illusions sells replacement cranking parts (for 30 and 20 tone music boxes), which includes some of the nylon gears.
The amazon version requires you to disassemble all the gear parts, but includes a good visual guide. The grand illusions version is simpler.
Most music boxes should last you a long time without need for lubrication. However, if the music box gets heavier to crank, some lubrication can help. Don't use oil, it can clog up the mechanism over time. Try using sewing machine lubricant instead.
The real notes, from top to bottom, are:
If you have any questions or ideas, you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. I also recommend asking general music box questions on the forum from Musicbox Maniacs.