I need to write two different short pieces for music boxes. The main limitations I'm facing are that I have to stay within 2 octaves and I can only(ish) write in the key of C major (or just C, D, E, F, G, A, and B). What should I keep in mind when trying to do this? How could I make a melody more interesting?

So far, I've figured out that since the tempo depends on the player, odd time signatures may not be the best choice. I'm also not sure that writing on anything but C major would suit me. What do you think of that?

Also, since I haven't seen this asked anywhere else, how would you tackle this problem?

  • 4
    Why would odd time signatures be any more problematic than, say 4/4? What part of the music box is marking bar lines?
    – user39614
    Jan 30, 2019 at 2:33
  • 1
    Odd time sigs are fine, you'll just have a hell of a time trying to keep track of everything as you're writing on the paper. As others have said, you've got all the modes to use as well. Last piece of advice: be careful not to put your notes too close together otherwise they won't sound. You can get away with 16th notes if the notes are farther apart; 16th-note scales can't really happen, but you can add little ornamentation here and there. Jan 30, 2019 at 11:38
  • If this is for a specific music box, please post information, links, etc. to the machine itself. There are plenty of "music boxes' out there with accidentals included. Jan 30, 2019 at 13:07
  • 1
    This is far too broad, since you could write a Gregorian chant or a 2-note rap "beat" Jan 30, 2019 at 13:07
  • 1
    What's the requirement? To write something that sounds traditional 'music box' or to stretch the limits of music box composition?
    – Laurence
    Jan 30, 2019 at 19:33

7 Answers 7


Keep it simple. I'm especially fond of music boxes. One of my main instruments is a celeste and I play hundreds of these types of songs. So this topic is near and dear to me.

Not sure why everyone's bringing up modes. The majority of music box songs are very simple and are usually in a major scale as music boxes generally depict traditional songs or upbeat songs for children (think "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", "Happy Birthday", etc). So your C major is fine. There's a big list of music box songs you can listen to. Play close attention to the 18 note and 22 note music boxes.

I analyzed the 354 music box songs of the 18 note movements in the link above. 310 were major (87%), 45 were minor (12.7%), 3 were modes and other scales (0.8%), 6 were mixed modes (1.69%). An example of a mixed mode song is "and I love her" by The Beatles.

So you see major is the most used if you want a traditional music box sound. That said, minor melodies and other modes can be very beautiful. One of the reasons why both Harry Potter and Sugar Plum Fairies have that "magical" feel to them is because they're minor on a celeste/bells instrument. Because people are mainly conditioned to hear major on bells (due to kids songs mainly), minor has a unique and mysterious tone to them.

Also worth to note that your typical 18 tine music box movement doesn't "waste" any notes. the comb doesn't have notes that don't appear in the song and more than likely it'll be diatonic. although it can have a non-diatonic tones in there if the song calls for it. Most combs are tuned specifically to a song. so "London Bridge" will have a different comb than "This Old Man", due to repeated notes. See here under "18 note movement information" see how it says "duplicate pitches (teeth) are necessary whenever a note plays again in less than about one second (which happens alot). Most movement combs have between 4 and 10 duplicated teeth, limiting the overall number of different pitches to about 14 or less". Also you can watch a video on this here.

In a music box, usually the melody is emphasized. So start off with the melody, then harmonize it afterwards.

In order to harmonize it properly you may or may not have enough room for full chords in two octaves:
1. Invert chords to make them fit.
2. Play a subset of the chord. So instead of playing 3 notes, you can play 1 note (root of the chord) or two notes (root+fifth,root+third, etc).
3. Try a different key. certain melodies/chords fit better in different keys for two octaves.

Another element of music boxes is to slightly arpeggiate a chord. This can happen on a cadence or when you want to emphasize a chord. But it's very quick, it provides a cute "jumbled" kind of sound. let's say I'm playing a C5 chord. so I'll play a C note, followed by G a few milliseconds afterwards, so they sound like they're together but not quite. you can also do this on full chords. You can see an example if you look at a music box, notice that on cadences and other chords that are emphasized, the dots aren't completely aligned.

Also, if you want to hear what it sounds like on an actual music box, search for "music box maker". they go for under 20 bucks, where you punch custom holes on paper and you crank out through a music box.


As others have indicated, there are a lot more than just the C major scale note that can be used for music box tunes.Any of the modes of C major will work (except perhaps B Locrian!). The problem lies with the fact that every note coming out is the same volume as every other.

In order to mark out each bar, it's a good idea to have it play two, maybe three notes at the beginning of some bars. Just a series of notes, even in time, won't necessarily start at the beginning, and could easily sound like they're modal even if it's supposed to be in C major. So, with a dyad or chord every so often, the listener will be convinced as to where the tune is at any point.

I agree with David's comment - it doesn't matter whether the music is played slowly or quickly, the time signature it's written in won't affect what's played.

  • 1
    A fundamental problem for music boxes may be how to convey phrasing in the absence of dynamics; this answer touches on that. To me this seems more important than worrying about restricted scales or modes. +1
    – user39614
    Jan 30, 2019 at 14:25

You're not limited to writing in the C major scale.

Well, okay, you can only use the notes of the C major scale. But...

Modes! Modes are basically the notes of a scale, but starting on a different scale degree. In order, the modes you can use are:

  • C Ionian (C major)
  • D Dorian
  • E Phrygian
  • F Lydian
  • G mixolydian
  • A Aeolian (A minor)
  • B Locrian

All of these use the notes of the C major scale. Melodies in modal music can sound quite interesting and colorful.

Additionally, in general terms, you can simply write in a more classical style for that traditional music box sound. I'll not go into detail, but rest assured this site has plenty of advice on how to do that.

I find it's probably good to include the seventh on your dominant chords if you're going for a traditional music box sound.


General advice for composers and musicians: play chords, not scales. If tempo is somewhat random, chords are your best friend. There's plenty of chords and beautiful chord progressions on the white keys. Write a song. C, G, Dm7, G, Dm, Cmaj7, Dm6, E7, F, G, C, Dm, F, G, C. There, I wrote it for you.

If you don't know what you're doing or if you need more inspiration, try scales. In addition to D dorian and G mixolydian etc, try various pentatonic scales

  • A minor pentatonic : A, C, D, E, G
  • Hirajōshi in A : notes A, B, C, E, F
  • ... same, but tonal center in E : E, F, A, B, C
  • ... same, but tonal center in B : B, C, E, F, A
  • (whatever the correct name is for this one) : D, E, F, A, B

Hirajōshi is a Japanese scale, look it up if you want to know more.

  • In English, I've heard that "Hirajoshi" scale referred to as "Japanese pentatonic minor".
    – user45266
    Jan 30, 2019 at 15:57

Start thinking in harmonies:

All music in major C without predominant will fit.

Dorian is o.k. (e.g. „drunken sailor“) - aeolian too.

I remember in the 80ies every second disco hit had the chord progression am F G em the melody contained many eights and a few quarter notes). Try this out.


If I were going to make a scroll for that music box kit, I would first notate the music in a program like MuseScore with an appropriate music box sound select. Only after being satisfied with the music would I transfer it to the punch paper.

The other thing I might do it test the music box with some well know theme and see how it sounds. A Satie Gymnopedie or a Mozart minuet would probably be my choice, but you can pick something you want to emulate.

Beyond that your question seems to be 'how to compose purely diatonic music?' That kind of question is supposed to be too broad for this forum.


Look up the Simpson's "Orb of Isis" for inspiration. Just write a simple melody, then write a simple "bass" line under it. One thing I noticed is no more than two notes strike simultaneously. Music box music is fun!

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