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"The Uselessness of Our Mechanical Music Hobby"
by Joyce Brite

The uselessness of our mechanical music hobby. What a loaded title! Before I go any further, I should note what prompted me to ponder this question. The cue came from the nature classic book, "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. In one chapter, the author briefly digresses from his thoughts on nature to ponder about hobbies.

"You do not annex a hobby, the hobby annexes you. To prescribe a hobby would be dangerously akin to prescribing a wife with about the same probability of a happy outcome...

"What is a hobby anyway? Where is the line of demarcation between hobbies and ordinary normal pursuits? ... A satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant... A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical. ...

"It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry--lowers it at once to ignominious category of an "exercise" undertaken for health, power, or profit."

As Leopold stated, "You do not annex a hobby, the hobby annexes you." What then, has attracted us to the mechanical music hobby and keeps us intrigued? What is it that is so fascinating about these odd devices? A person who views the world strictly in economic or practical terms would deem these machines as frivolous and unnecessary. If it doesn't contribute to food, shelter, or bettering one's income, then it must have no value. How then, do we justify these "frivolous" machines to non-believers?

I do not totally agree with Leopold that "to find reasons why [a hobby] is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry..." The exercise of contemplation or introspection or has become passe. Those who engage in this activity often feel obliged to apologize for doing so. However, after musing on the subject for a period of time (with no apology), I contemplated the following ideas.

Mechanical music machines provide us with a certain amount of mental challenge. Human curiosity about an object sparks a quest for knowledge. How does it work? What is the origin? Are there more like it? Are they the same or different? And so forth. The machines keep us alert by constantly providing us with new challenges. Is there anyone among us who has not faced the perplexing dilemma of getting an obstinate player piano, organ, music box or other machine to work? We learn what methods work and what doesn't work. There is gratification in finally solving a puzzle that has confronted us for some time.

In the case of mechanical music, our satisfaction becomes more than just project completion. We take pride in seeing the keys, bellows, gears, crankshafts, and other mechanical parts operate in an efficient manner. The reward for our hard work is hearing the machine play its music.

Each person has his or her own reason(s) for amassing and restoring these machines. Some collect them merely to impress others. However, there is also historical and societal value in preserving and maintaining these machines from the past. They provide us with clues as to how people lived at the time they were made. We learn about their technology, musical tastes, and social values.

Our hobby is a labor of love. Why else spend an inordinate about of money on something that will not provide us good monetary return? We enjoy and preserve these machines because "a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant." No further justification is needed.

Joyce Brite - Player Piano and Mechanical Music Exchange

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