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 and wintergatan. So thanks!!

What types are there, and where to find them?

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.

Copper gears or no copper gears?

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.

Creating Music

The basics

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.

A few tips & tricks

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.

To illustrate:

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.

Composing tools

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)’.

Composing and punching

There are a few ways to get started with composing.

  1. Start with a midi file

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.

  1. Translate from music sheets

If you already know the notes, it's easy to fill them in. Keep the technical limitations of the music box in mind.

  1. Free for all

Arrange pieces by ear or just come up with your own piece!

Getting music online

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.

Putting it on paper strips (and details)

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:

  1. Make sure you print the file at 100% size. Printers usually scale the files down a tiny bit, and then it no longer fits.
  1. Print one page first, and check if the lines indeed line up. I found that with one editor, 100% was still too small, and I had to print at 100,95%
  1. Use masking tape to tape the printed paper on your strip, because it’s easy to remove, and kinda see-through.

Drawing notes on the paper strips

  1. Add vertical marks and/or numbers at the right vertical lines to divide the measures of the music. It makes it easier to keep track of where you are.
  2. Add some horizontal helper lines at certain notes on the paper strips, so it's easier to find the right note.
  1. 30 note music rolls already have those helper lines.
  1. In the same line of thought; print out the composition you want to copy and draw the same helper lines.
  2. At the start of a strip are all the note names along the lines. Cut off this bit from one strip. You can place this bit on any place along the strip to quickly check which line is which note (thank you Wintergatan!)
  3. When you have a 30 note music box and you want to make a long piece, buy and use a paper roll. Be careful about trying to tape strips together, as it can sometimes get stuck in your music box and it can break your music box.  

General tips:

  1. At the start of the paper strip, where you enter it into the box, cut a bit off so that the start is diagonal. That makes it easier to feed the strip into the box.
  2. When you've drawn two or three measures of notes, punch them and try it out, to see if you've done it right and if the tempo works.
  3. If you punched a wrong hole, it can be fixed. Stick masking tape over the wrong hole at the bottom of the paper strip and you should be good.
  4. There are no paper rolls for 20 tone music boxes, so you have to tape music strips together. However, 20 tone music boxes very rarely have issues with that. For a good guide on how to do that, watch this video from Wintergatan:

Maintaining and fixing your music box

Sometimes you run into issues with a music box. Here are a few things that can help with fixing it.

My paper strip got stuck

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.

My music box rattles at regular intervals

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.

Gears are no longer aligned or gear has broken

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.

I need to replace gears

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.

grand illusions

The amazon version requires you to disassemble all the gear parts, but includes a good visual guide. The grand illusions version is simpler.

Lubricating your music box

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 30 tone music box notes

The real notes, from top to bottom, are:


Special thanks

Contact info

If you have any questions or ideas, you can contact me on I also recommend asking general music box questions on the forum from Musicbox Maniacs.