Kit 20: Bird Organ

Kit 20: Bird Organ, 2500 yen (about $25 USD). Looking at the picture on the cover, it’s easy to think that this is some kind of mechanical music box. It’s not. Like the name implies, this is actually a very small pipe organ, supposedly used for teaching songbirds to sing specific tunes. The mechanism is very clever, and is based on a French design dating back to at least 1751. The original box used a hand crank to drive a bellows for air flow, while rotating a wooden cylinder covered with little brass pins. The pins would open up stops on the pipes and air from the bellows through the pipes would produce your music. Change the cylinder to play a different song. This is pretty much the concept of the instrument played by organ grinders for trained monkeys to dance to.

The Gakken kit is a simpler approach. First, start with the hand crank, and set up two separate gear chains – one to pull a sheet of paper through the organ, the other connected to a cam. The cam makes a small piston move up and down, creating the air flow through a chamber to the openings in the base leading to the pipes (thus ensuring even air pressure to all pipes). Holes in the paper allow air flow to specific pipes. The pipes are small, so the sounds are high-pitched like a canary, hence the name “bird organ”. A small scissors-like punch is included to punch out the holes in the paper, and there are several pages of sheet music in the mook you can cut out and play. Of course, you can make your own sheet music, too.

Music Sheet List:
Tuning Card
Amazing Grace
Kotori no echuudo (Small Bird Etude)
kokyou no hitobito (Hometown Folks)
Ryoshu (Travel Nostalgia)
Tondetta Banana (Flying Banana)

(Closeup of the underside of the base. The gear on the right advances the paper, and the circular shape on the left is the piston that acts as the bellows for air flow.)

The kit consists of about 20 pieces, not including the screws, and took about 40 minutes to assemble. The authors recommend greasing the moving parts, but I didn’t have grease at the time and didn’t bother with it. The really time-consuming part is punching out the holes in the sheets. The really difficult part (for someone tone-deaf like myself) is moving the rubber stoppers in the pipes to tune them. There’s a “tuning sheet” included in the book that runs through the scales, which didn’t help me at all.

(Assembled, but without the paper. If you turned the crank now, all of the whistles would sound at one time.)

The mook runs through the history of barrel organs, church organs and wind-up metal music boxes, including lots of nice photos and the theory of wind-produced music. There’s a story on Kuricorder Quartet and their reactions to the bird organ, and one article on modding the kit (adding a bellows and putting it into a larger wooden case). Another article takes the reader behind the scenes at the clock tower in Bern, Switzerland. Other pieces describe how different birds produce distinctive songs, and the affects of sound on the human brain. Finally, there’s a piece on the Golden Gate Bridge and how it relates to the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson.

(With the tuning card.)

There are a number of links to other websites:

Roller Canary Club (fans of pipe organs)
Kuricorder Quartet (musician page)
Roland (electronic pipe organ)
Jobin Living Museum
Le Musee CIMA
Musee Baud
Museum fur Musikautomaten
Naoki Wakita Organ Company

This is a very cool kit for anyone that likes wind instruments and church organs, but it’s not practical as an instrument. Air escapes from the bellows around the paper sheet. If you hold the pipe section down hard enough to prevent air leakage, you prevent the paper from advancing through the organ. Don’t press so hard, and while the paper will advance, the air leaks and the music stops. When you hit a section of the paper that doesn’t have holes, the air pressure buildup from the piston makes the crank hard to turn and the paper doesn’t advance. If you turn the crank fast enough, the music will play, but it will be unrecognizable. This is another nice idea that lends itself to decoration, but will spend all its time on the shelf because it really doesn’t work *at all*. Get the mook just to better understand the theory involved, but you can throw the kit into the trash.

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