A fairground organ (or band organ (U.S.)) is a pipe organ designed for use in a commercial public fairground setting to provide loud music to accompany fairground rides and attractions. Unlike organs intended for indoor use, they are designed to produce a large volume of sound to be heard over and above the noise of crowds of people and fairground machinery. As fairgrounds became more mechanised at the end of the nineteenth century, their musical needs grew. The period of greatest activity of fairground organ manufacture and development is from the later 1880s through to the introduction of effective electrical sound amplification in the mid 1920s. The organ chassis was typically provided with an ornate and florid decorative case facade designed, like most fairground equipment, to be an attraction in its own right.
The organs were designed to mimic the musical capabilities of a typical human band and produce the popular music of the period and, for this reason, are known as band organs in the US. Consequently the pipes and percussion and their divisions were chosen specifically to fulfil this concept.
The motive force for a fairground organ is typically compressed air, generated from mechanically powered sets of bellows mounted in the base of the instrument. Apart from a few examples, the instruments do not have a keyboard and are designed to be operated without a human player. The organ is played mechanically by either a set of pins set in a revolving barrel, like a musical box, hence called a barrel organ, a strip of card perforated with holes which can be mechanically read to play the musical notes and registration controls, called book music, or interchangeable rolls of paper similarly programmed called music rolls.
Like all mechanical instruments, fairground organs come in a vast array of sizes and technical specifications, made by a number of manufacturers, all of which had their own trademark characteristics. As with all vintage equipment, there is a strong preservation movement associated with these instruments, and new instruments and music are still being produced today.Fairground organs were used in many settings such as general fairground rides, static side-shows such as bioscope shows and various locations in amusements parks such as ice rinks.
Early barrel organs were designed to be compact and could be operated either mechanically, or by an unskilled person. Several melodies were encoded onto an integral, pinned barrel and no human input was required, other than selection of the tune to be played. They had a fixed repertoire which could only be changed by replacing the barrel. To offer a more flexible repertoire a system was adopted which used robust interchangeable perforated cardboard book music. The first to use this system were the Parisian manufacturers Gavioli, whose mechanical system became widely regarded as the most reliable. They soon established a very strong market position, which is still evident today from the number of their instruments that still survive. Book music offered a cheaper, more readily updated, alternative to barrel music. Operation via paper music roll was also introduced by various innovative manufacturers. The rolls were more compact, and cheaper to manufacture than even book music, although they were more susceptible to poor handling. All systems experienced their own types of characteristic wear and tear during repeated playing. Both "book" and "roll" systems were manufactured with different patent operating actions, which read the music by pressure, suction, or mechanical means. To extend longevity, mechanically-read cardboard book music is typically strengthened with an application of shellac. Music rolls are typically fortified via the use of robust moisture-resisting paper stock.
All the functions of the organ are (apart from the smallest instruments) operated automatically from the music media. Larger instruments contain automatic organ stop register control and additional control tracks for operating percussion instruments, lighting effects and even automaton figures.
A non-exhaustive list of builders, past & present, categorised by the type of organs they built/build;
+ company still operating/new company- defunct company
Bopp, Ron: The American Carousel Organ: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Grove, OK: Ron Bopp, 1998.
Bowers, Q. David: The Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1972.
Jüttemann, Herbert: Waldkircher Dreh- und Jahrmarkt-Orgeln.Waldkirch: Waldkircher Verlag, 1993.
Jüttemann, Herbert: Waldkirch Street and Fairground Organs. Rufforth, York: A.C. Pilmer, 2002. (Revised translation of above)
Reblitz, Arthur A.: The Golden Age of Automatic Musical Instruments. Woodsville, NH: Mechanical Music Press, 2001.
Reblitz, Arthur A. and Bowers, Q. David: Treasures of Mechanical Music. Vestal, NY: Vestal Press, 1981.
Cockayne, Eric V. The Fair Organ — How It Works. UK, published by The Fair Organ Preservation Society