A Review of London’s Musical Museum

The Musical Museum is a fascinating niche museum, housing various self-playing instruments and over 20,000 music rolls.

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The Musical Museum is one of London’s most fascinating niche museums, housing a variety of self-playing instruments and over 20,000 music rolls. And on a rainy day, I went for a visit.

It was spitting outside – spitting, such a lovely way of describing light rain that you can only ascribe it to British eccentricity – as I switched two tube lines and headed into Brentford, an out-of-the-way town in West London.

From Gunnerbsury tube station to The Musical Museum (with a capital The, so you know it’s the real deal) it was a mere 20-minute walk, so I walked, not in spite of the rain but because of it. Have you ever wondered down unknown streets under a light rain? You should try it – it reveals things about you.

And the thing it revealed about me was that the trip felt much, much longer than 20 minutes, with cars zooming past on the main road as I was mentally counting the number of bridges I’ve already crossed – naturally, since Brentford is at the intersection of two rivers, Thames and Brent.

The Musical Museum building
A blue and grey building housing The Musical Museum in London

Finally, I arrived at my destination:  399 High Street. There it lay in front of me, in all its brutalist glory, a grey building with a blue jutting-out-sideways portion adorned with its name. It read “The Musical Museum”, and next to it a series of dots and lines, the same ones you would find on a musical roll.

At the time of writing, an adult ticket cost £12, which is quite steep compared to the rest of London’s prestigious museums, many of which are centrally-located and famously free. Considering it’s a specialist museum on the smaller size, its main funding comes from ticket sales and donations.

If you think it’s a bit too pricy (and you’re still not sure if it’s worth it or if it’s a tourist trap), then consider doing what I did and visit on their annual Open Day: the last Saturday of July. However, be advised that many, many other people are going to have the same bright idea, particularly families with children. And that’s how I found myself in an exercise of much squeezing through and “excuse me”s. But hey – free entry, and there are more mini-tours and instrument demonstrations on Open Days to allow all visitors the opportunity to join in the fun.

It is at this point that I should probably specify what kind of museum this is (perhaps I should have specified this earlier, but I prefer the dramatics of a long introduction).

The Musical Museum is, as per the name, a museum about music, but moreso musical instruments, but more specifically (see how I drew out the drama of a simple sentence?) self-playing musical machinery. They go by various names: self-playing instruments, automatic music, reproducing players.

As I’m fond of visiting any and every local museum of music that I can find, I can say that there’s a true and tested method of this particular niche: get some instruments, slap on some displays, and have a lot of treble clefs in the gift shop. But The Musical Museum is rather unique as it displays a sub-genre of musical instruments that most people might not be aware of, and there’s a lot more engineering and mechanics involved.

You may be familiar with the simplest of self-playing instruments: the humble musical box. It produces a short, usually tinny-sounding melody, by turning a handle, which then turns a music roll, with raised dots and lines, each dot and line producing a different sound when pressure is applied. The same mechanism can be applied to a variety of other self-playing instruments: something’s triggered, something rolls, something sounds. However, as you’re about to see, there’s a lot more variety at play.

hall with instruments
The first hall, heaving with instruments

As you enter the first hall of instruments, it’s clear that this is their house, and you’re a mere mortal visitor squeezing past, overwhelmed at the sheer size of some of these monstrosities.

I could make out the pianos, organs and gramophones, albeit a self-playing version of them, but there were cabinets and cases with devices that I couldn’t exactly pinpoint – why were there three violins on top of a piano? Why did one piano have its mechanical innards showing? Why was there a mirror underneath the grand piano? These are questions that show the intersection of art and science, of music and engineering.

I joined two of the Open Day’s mini-tours, and various instrument demonstrations. Despite being quite crowded, I had enough time to explore the halls to my leisure, to take plenty of photographs, and to enjoy the atmosphere of the museum.

I will now take you through some of my personal favourites, though one measly article cannot do justice to all exhibits on display.

phonoliszt violina
Phonoliszt Violina Model B

The first instrument I’d like to point out is the Violina, or what I initially thought to be a violin-piano Frankenstein creation. 

This machine is the Phonoliszt Violina Model B where three violins are mounted upside down on top of an upright piano and are linked to the same paper music roll using a 77-hole tracker bar. Once activated, a circular metal bow equipped with some 1350 horsehair strands will start rotating and strike one string of each violin. 

Rotating at different speeds will provide more colouring in terms of tone and expression, with additional controls available on the piano itself by use of pneumatic motors. This model was made by the Hupfeld company in Leipzig, Germany around the 1910s.

The violins can be hidden away behind a case, if you decide to act the part of the mad scientist and dramatically reveal them to your terrified guests during a thunderstorm.

What initially looks like a locked-away organ is in fact an Orchestrion, which is single machine meant to reproduce the sounds of an entire orchestra. This model is by Imhor & Mukle (model no. 3147 from 1899 to be exact) and it was popular with wealthy households who were fond of music, but had been plagued by misfortune by being born a few decades before the invention of records. 

This model features orchestral instruments like trumpet, oboe, diapason, drums, cymbals, tambourine and organ flutes. With the turn of a switch you can have an entire orchestra in your fancy living room. The motor itself (or “innards” as I like to call them) is displayed below. I’ve also taken a short video of the Orchestrion in action, which makes for a very dramatic 12 seconds.

close up of orchestrion
Imhor & Mukle Orchestrion - close-up

The Violano Virtuoso is a self-playing violin made by the Mills Novelty Chicago factory in 1913. Like the Phonoliszt Violina, this is also a combination of piano and violin, and one of its innovative characteristics is that all components are run by electricity, rather than mechanical force. There were only around 200 such violins built, but it was such an impressive feat of construction that the US Patents Office declared it as one of the eight greatest inventions of that decade. Note the “Notice to Piano Tuner” instructions pinned above the violin, which I’m sure many a piano tuner were grateful for.

close up of violano virtuoso
close up of violano virtuoso

Last object I’ll mention from this first hall is the self-playing grand piano, the Ampico Model B made by the Chickering company in 1940, at a time where self-playing pianos were at a decline in popularity. Chickering’s ownership passed to Ampico (American Piano Co) in 1908. 

The tour guide told a very interesting story about this particular company, and it involved famous Russian pianist and composer Rachmaninoff.

close up of Chickering Ampico Piano
Chickering Ampico Model B

The story goes as such: at the height of the self-playing piano’s popularity, pianists were incredulous that a machine could reproduce music the same way a musician (a human one) could. Ampico issued Rachmaninoff with a challenge: come down to the piano factory and play some of his music, so that Ampico could reproduce them on piano rolls. Intrigued, Rachmaninoff went, and a week later he returned to see the results. As his music was played back to him on a self-playing piano, equipped with the new Rachmaninoff piano roll, the composer is said to have remarked – “Gentlemen – I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!”

This story is also mentioned on Wikipedia, and it seems it originated with Ampico’s publicity department. The source listed is Elaine Obenchain’s “The complete catalog of Ampico Reproducing Piano Rolls” from 1977, which I have not been able to find, so for now we’ll cautiously think of this story as a great PR spin.

The mirror placed underneath the piano shows the motor operating inside the instrument. It is simply stupendous to hear a piece of music played more than 100 years ago, and performed by its original composer. What really tickled me about this instrument was the tour guide’s describing it as a ghost performer, which made me imagine all sorts of ghastly mischief happening here on Halloween.

mirror underneath piano
Mirror underneath the piano
piano motor
Mirror reflection of the motor of Chickering Ampico Piano
Rachmaninoff’s Polchinelle op. 3 no. 4, played by Rachmaninoff himself, recorded in 1917

As you leave the main hall, you come across many more curious items on display. Here are a few that caught my attention:

Once you finish with the exhibits, you can head upstairs to see the main concert hall, adjacent to a small cafe. The hall is also adorned with various clippings and print-outs of the history of the museum, which provide further fascinating insights. But first, the main attraction on this floor: the organ theatre.

The main Wurlitzer Electronic Theatre Organ is on display on the stage, and it is grandiose. I walk in mid-way through a demonstration by one of the volunteers, and you can see a small clip below. Notice his feet, and how different pressure and multi-tasking is needed to play this instrument. There’s also a cool retro effect with the LED lights on the side of the instrument switching colours.

Once the performance is over, the Wurlitzer, along with its player, descends inside the stage via the use of a moving platform. This is practical as they can then use the stage for various other performances, plays, and even host movies – and with silent movies, they can play the soundtrack directly on the organ from beneath the stage. Personally, the idea of a piano ascending and descending onto the stage via what is essentially a trap door is very Phantom of the Opera, which I love. 

Wurlitzer Electronic Theatre Organ
Wurlitzer Electronic Theatre Organ

This Wurlitzer was built in 1928/1989 in North Tonawanda by Wurlitzer & Co company. See below the blueprint of the organ trap door, or organ console lift if you want the proper term.

blueprint of organ lift
Blueprint of organ lift

The Wurlitzer had to be moved from St. George’s church to the new museum venue in 368 High Street in 1972, as seen in this letter from contractors.

1972 contractor letter
1972 contractor letter for moving the Wurtlizer

Just before I leave, I check out the gift shop, which is very cute, and I go through some discounted boxes of second-hand music scores. 

I present you with my find of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words for the incredibly low price of £1! 

Remember how I complained about treble clef merch in music museums? Well, the joke’s entirely on me, because I bought these treble-shaped cuff links and a treble-shaped broach and I have no treble about it (sorry!).

The review part of my visit might be over, but I am not quite done yet. Because I reject the concept of brevity, I did some more research into the history of this museum.

meldelssohn's lieder ohne worte
Mendelssohn's Lieder Ohne Worte adorned with treble clefs
Frank Holland's autobiography A Box Full of Rolls
Frank Holland's autobiography "A Box Full of Rolls"

Originally founded in 1963 as the British Piano Museum, it was housed in St. George’s church, an abandoned church, by Frank Holland MBE. It moved to High Street in 2009. Wikipedia also mentioned that Frank Holland wrote about his experience in his autobiography “A Boxful of Rolls”. Well, that was a good of a place as any other to start, so I went out looking for this book. Unavailable in libraries and on the main book shopping sites, so I ventured into murkier water and went on eBay, where I found a copy for £3.99, which I promptly ordered because I have no sense of self-control when it comes to buying books.

It arrived in pristine condition, wrapped in plastic, and I can then realisedwhy I couldn’t find it anywhere else. It’s a very tiny book, it has no ISBN, and from what I could find online, it was printed in 1988 for the 25-year anniversary of the museum’s founding.

The book covers one man’s almost singular mission to restore and preserve self-playing instruments in Britain. Born in 1910 into a very musical family, Frank lived to see the rise and fall of self-playing instruments. From a young age he discovers a talent for pitch and memorising melody rather than sight-reading, and he attributes this to his future passion for self-playing instruments.

His fascination with the inner workings of musical instruments began with age ten and the dismantling of an upright piano at a boarding school, a fascination that turned less destructive by later on building a self-playing gramophone which could play 18 records. He trained in electricity and engineering, and was mighty savvy in both of them.

On a visit to the US, he came across reproducing piano players, but didn’t recognise their ingenuity until he took one apart himself (old habits die hard). This is also the point when Frank started collecting piano rolls, and he had them shipped to London on his return. He started contacting piano showrooms in London and asking around about player piano parts, and scouring for piano rolls in second-hand shops.

In 1959 he formed the Player Piano Group with a few friends interested in automatic instruments. Frank’s flat started to feel a bit tight, so he housed some of his collection at friends’ houses and garages, which led to him looking for a more permanent place to house them. A 1960 letter from the Department of Education and Science reveals their saying no at having the Science Museum house Frank’s instruments, and they instead cheekily suggest he put them up for auction.

Frank’s luck came in the form of one of England’s lesser known points of fame at the time: around 800 abandoned churches, and in Brentford there was St. George’s Church. With the vicar and the council’s joint permissions, the instruments were moved there in 1963. Frank started making repairs on the church, since it was in disrepair and partly flooded. On weekends the collection would be open to the public to make some money from ticket sales.

In 1966 Frank created a Trust and a charity for the museum, and spent the next years tracking down rare self-playing instruments, bargaining for them, housing them, restoring them and taking care of them as if they were his own creations. Musicians who had recorded the rolls that Frank now owned would come to visit him and hear themselves play, probably for the first time. The museum currently holds over 20,000 music rolls in storage.

For his efforts, Frank claims that the biggest honour was to receive an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1979.

It is the incredible tale of a man with a passion for music and commitment to have that passion colour his life. Frank Holland died in 1989, leaving behind a legacy built on music. The museum would move into its new permanent location at 399 High Street, Brentford in 2008/2009.

Frank’s intention had always been to have a museum where you can hear, not just see the instruments. In this aspect it stands as one of the most unique and fascinating museums in London, and a fresh take on the idea of a music museum.

In lieu of a goodbye, I shall leave you with this Yamaha piano playing Erik Satie’s Gymopedie no. 1, accompanied by the background noise of visitors milling around. 

This article is part of the Music Museums series, where I review museums focused on musical instruments or a composer’s life and work. Read the rest of the series here.