Mechanized Voices and Machinic Bodies: The Music Box in US Popular Media

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Gunst, Stephanie, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Gordon, Bonnie, AS-Music, University of Virginia

The music box, an automatic musical instrument, was developed by watchmakers in the early nineteenth century. Using a musical comb made of metal, each tooth would be tuned to a specific note that was struck by a metal pin, giving it its classic metallic, resonant sound. Before the phonograph and the rise of the recording industry at the turn of the twentieth century, music box manufacturers strove to make their machines the primary method of listening to and enjoying music in the home.

This dissertation explores the music box’s emergence in United States popular media and its relationship to contemporary discourses on gender, race, and voice. I argue that these discourses helped turn the music box into a pop cultural trope, in which it acquired traits that aligned it with femininity and otherness. As one of the earliest commodified musical machines, the music box set a precedent for how mechanization elided with contemporary notions of feminization. Because its sound was described in terms of the human voice, it sounded marginalization as much as it connoted it. Newspapers and literary magazines established and perpetuated the music box as a gendered and racialized cultural trope in the mid-nineteenth century, which has persisted into today’s media.

The first two chapters outline how mid-nineteenth-century writers used the music box to describe voices and bodies, respectively, that were considered machine-like. Mechanized voices and machinic bodies, as I call them, were marked by gender and/or racial difference. The third chapter considers these tropes with respect to the phonograph in literature, which had the unique ability to record and play back the human voice. In the final chapter, I consider how the music box trope shifted in silent film and early sound film examples.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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