The last time I saw one in the streets was back in the early 1960s, and it drew the attention of all passers-by as most people had never seen one before. Let me describe it:

  • It consists of a box with a drawer and a hand crank.
  • Turning the crank in a circular motion produces music.
  • The drawer contains a lot of tiny cards telling one's fortune.
  • A lovebird, or a monkey, often has a role in the show.

This instrument is his owner's bread and butter. He walks around parks and squares, turning the crank to produce music. When he spots a couple, he offers the man a fortune-card for his girlfriend or wife. If the guy accepts it, the lovebird picks up a card for the couple, and the instrument owner gets a tip.

  • 1
    The drawer normally contains the pinned barrels used to store the music. We can imagine that fortune cards have been recently added by the organ grinder for commercial purpose.
    – Graffito
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 15:57
  • When I was a kid this was always referred to (in reading books) as a "box organ". Generally came with the monkey. I think I may have even seen one in operation once. Never read anything about the cards, though.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 19:53

2 Answers 2


That would be called a barrel organ. The person who plays it is called an organ grinder. I've only seen them on TV and in movies, and I've never seen the fortune card part of it. Just the musical instrument.

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(Barrel organ - Britannica.com)

  • The one I saw was much smaller, had a crank, no wheels, and the guy carried it with a leather strap around his neck.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 18:17
  • 2
    A conceptually similar instrument is the Hurdy-Gurdy. Also operated by a crank, though the player does have to press keys with their other hand to make notes, rather than just cranking it. There's also the music box, which can be spring-loaded or operate on a crank (e.g. a Jack-in-the-Box). These work by tweaking tuned metal tines with pegs on a rotary drum. The one in this answer is probably closer to what you're thinking though - they come in a wide variety of sizes. (It does have a crank, it's just hidden from view near the man's right hand.) Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 18:28
  • The one I saw was much smaller, had a crank, no wheels, and the guy carried it with a leather strap around his neck. Still a barrel organ. You might see the instument referred to as a "hurdy -gurdy", but that is actually a different instrument, with strings rather than pipes, a rotating wheel, and keys to stop the strings. (Just seen Darrel's comment which arrived while I was typing.)
    – Margana
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 18:29
  • 1
    There are no wheels on the organ in the picture, either. Look closely and you will notice that it is just sitting on top of a push cart. The bloke's red umbrella is also sitting on the cart.
    – Drew
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 20:27
  • 1
    @DarrelHoffman The only thing an hurdy-gurdy and a barrel organ have in common is a crank. The hurdy-gurdy is a bowed instrument; its crank only make a wheel turn which, in turn rub the strings, some of which can be “shortened” like on a violin but through a keyboard; it is also used for rhythmic purposes. The barrel organ is a wind instrument, its crack is used to produce air pressure (using bellows) and to rotate a barrel which opens pipes to play the melody. The hurry-gurdy is as related to the barrel organ as it is to the saxophone, which also has keys.
    – Édouard
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 0:38

The answer to the OP's question is definitely "Barrel Organ" but there is a degree of confusion about what this term means and also around the terms Barrel Organ and Hurdy-Gurdy. In particular there is a comment discussion going on between @DarrelHoffman and @Édouard. I was going to add my own comment when I found this site belonging to a maker of barrel organs from which I copied the following paragraph:

To clear up some common misconceptions, these pages are devoted to 'organs' - that is, instruments with pipes that sound when air is blown through them, just like a church organ, but a lot smaller! 'Barrel Organs' were a common sight years ago, and some did contain air-blown pipes, but the majority of these were actually very large versions of a musical box - as revealed by the 'metallic' sounds that they produced. Another name sometimes wrongly applied to Busker organs is 'Hurdy Gurdy'. This is actually a mechanical violin, where a rotating wheel takes the place of a bow, and notes can be sounded by operating keys to press the violin strings onto the wheel.

This said so much that I wanted to say and with so much authority that I thought I should share it with the community. The only thing I would add is that true hurdy-gurdies are instruments which need proper musical skills to play whereas barrel organs of all types are hand-cranked mechanical instruments where the tune is determined by spikes on a rotating drum or holes in cards or paper. For those who are interested I would suggest that they enter "hurdy-gurdy" into a search engine. There is a wealth of information and demonstrations out there.


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