An organette shares many similarities with a gramophone, featuring an interchangeable disc where the music is read by an arm.
Photo: F.Beer, Ringve

Among Music Boxes and Positive Organs - An Unwritten Norwegian History


The story of early mechanical musical instruments such as music boxes, positive organs, and musical clocks is well-documented from a technological perspective, concerning innovators, patents, and model names. But what did their emergence and dissemination pathways look like? How were these instruments used, and what significance did they hold for people? These questions are addressed in a dissertation in musicology on early mechanical musical instruments in Norway.

Mats Krouthén
Mats Krouthén listening to a Swiss music box from around 1875.
Photo: A. Krouthén

By examining preserved instruments in Norwegian museums and searching through vast amounts of digitized newspapers and literature in the National Library of Norway's digital library, Mats Krouthén has explored the emergence of early mechanical musical instruments in Norway, primarily during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Krouthén has been a curator for musical instruments at Ringve and Rockheim Music Museums for 25 years, which are Norway's national museums for music and musical instruments, and he is now defending his doctoral thesis at the University of Gothenburg.

Detail of a music box.
Photo: Mats Krouthén, Ringve

New consumption patterns

The music on a positive organ is programmed on a pinned cylinder.
Photo: R.Øhlander, Ringve

One of the main theses in the dissertation is that all inventions have a prehistory - nothing emerges out of nothing. When Edison invented the phonograph for sound storage in 1878, the technology was indeed new, but it had been preceded by a well-established distribution chain for many years.

"I show how both the music industry and the mechanical musical instruments had long offered consumption patterns that could be taken over by the new sound reproduction technology," says Mats Krouthén.

"This behavior existed throughout the 19th century: buying a physical representation of music, letting it detach from the sender and be transported in time and space to a recipient who played back the unchanged content."

"Ariston-Per" in Trondheim in the 1920's.
Photo: Trondheim byarkiv

Gramophone record was foreshadowed

With the two-part mechanical instruments, such as disc music boxes and organettes with separate interchangeable discs, the gramophone record was foreshadowed, which made its entry in the late 19th century.

"The shift in perspective from technology to behavior allows for the blurring of the boundary between sound recording and play instructions. In both cases, there is a fixation of music," says Mats Krouthén.

Several things have surprised him in his work on the dissertation. For example, how the repertoire on 18th-century Norwegian musical clocks differed from the commonly described international repertoire. Instead of dance movements and small music pieces by Handel, Haydn, and Beethoven, a Norwegian hymn was usually performed on Norwegian musical clocks before they struck the hour, which was an inheritance from the late medieval cathedrals' collective messages.

"Dance and entertainment were otherwise the usual uses for mechanical instruments."

golvur med tillhörande orgelverk
A grandfather clock with a built-in organ (visible on the right), which plays a melody to signal the approaching strike of the hour.
Photo: Jette Pedersen, Ringve

Comfort and Status Symbol

avhandlingens omslag

By reading advertisements, various sales arguments for the mechanical instruments also emerge, such as offering comfort to the sick, maintaining morals for explorers, or being used for wonder or surprise - or for boasting.

In the material, Mats Krouthén has found a rich variety of historical terms in Norwegian for various mechanical instruments: bird organs, singing boxes, English positive organs, and more.

"These variants, with small or significant shifts in meaning, are presented in the dissertation as a model for further museum research. The richness of terms calls for caution in interpreting words in large bodies of text written in different contexts and times," says Mats Krouthén.

The dissertation Människorna, musiken och de mekaniska musikinstrumenten i Norge cirka 1480-1890 (People, Music, and Mechanical Musical Instruments in Norway circa 1480-1890) was defended in a dissertation on April 26.

The dissertation is freely available digitally: :

Mats Krouthén, tel: 0730-316 671 or +47 926 966 46, email: