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Calliope (music): Wikis


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1874 chromolithograph circus poster showing a calliope
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A calliope is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending a gas, originally steam or more recently compressed air, through large whistles, originally locomotive whistles.

A calliope is typically very loud. Even some small calliopes are audible for miles around. There is no provision for varying the tone or loudness, the only expression possible is the timing and duration of the notes.

The name originates from the name of Calliope, pronounced /kəˈlaɪ.əpi/, from the Greek for beautiful voiced. In Greek mythology, Calliope was a daughter of Zeus, chief of the Muses and mother of Orpheus. The pronunciation of the instrument name varies, often pronounced /ˈkæli.oʊp/ with the stress on the first and last syllables.

The steam calliope is also known as a steam organ or steam piano. The air-driven calliope is sometimes called a calliaphone, the name given it by its inventor, however the Calliaphone name is registered by a particular manufacturer.

In the age of steam, the steam calliope was particularly employed on riverboats and in circuses. In both cases, a steam supply was already available for other purposes. Riverboats supplied steam from their propulsion boilers. Circus calliopes were sometimes installed in steam-drive carousels, or supplied with steam from a traction engine which might also supply electric power for lighting and tow the calliope in the circus parade, in which it traditionally came last. Other circus calliopes were self-contained, mounted on a carved, painted and gilded wagon pulled by horses, but the presence of other steam boilers in the circus meant that fuel and expertise to run the boiler were readily available.

Calliopes can be played by a player at a keyboard or mechanically. Mechanical operation may be by a drum similar to a music box drum, or by a roll similar to that of a player piano. Some instruments have both a keyboard and a mechanism for automated operation, others only one or the other. Some calliopes can also be played via a MIDI interface.

The whistles of a calliope are tuned to a chromatic scale, although this process is difficult and must be repeated often to maintain quality sound. Since the pitch of each note is largely affected by the temperature of the steam, accurate tuning is nearly impossible; however, the off-pitch notes (particularly in the upper register) have become somewhat of a trademark of the steam calliope. A calliope may have anywhere from 25 to 67 whistles, but 32 is traditional for a steam calliope.[1] The largest steam calliope yet built is on the Mississippi Queen[2] with 44 whistles.[3]



Calliope on the Minnie-Ha-Ha, a stern-wheeler on Lake George, NY
Kitch Greenhouse Steam Calliope at the Ohio Historical Society - July, 2006
Fairground calliope trailer being hauled by a U.S.-built traction engine - New Orleans Mardi Gras 2007

Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts patented the calliope on October 9, 1855, although it is based on previously known concepts, as in 1832, a musical instrument designer made a "steam trumpet" later to be known as a train whistle. In 1851, William Hoyt of Dupont, Indiana claimed to have conceived of a device that accurately describes Stoddard's calliope, but it was never patented. Later, an employee of Stoddard's American Music, Arthur S. Denny, would attempt to market an "improved" calliope in Europe, but his attempts never caught on there.

While Stoddard had originally intended the calliope to replace bells at churches, it found its way onto riverboats during the paddlewheel era. While only a small number of working steamboats still exist, each one has a steam calliope. Many of the surviving calliopes were built by Thomas J. Nichol, Cincinnati, Ohio, who built calliopes from 1890 until 1932. These boats include the Delta Queen and President. Their calliopes are played regularly on river excursions. The Thomas J. Nichol calliopes featured rolled sheet copper (as used in roofing) for the resonant tube (the bell) of the whistle, lending a sweeter tone than cast bronze or brass which was the common material for steam whistles of the day. David Morecraft pioneered a resurgence in the building of authentic steam calliopes of the Thomas J. Nichol style beginning in 1985 in Peru, Indiana and is still in business today, the last commercial authentic steam calliope builder in the world. These calliopes are featured in Peru's annual Circus City Parade.

Stoddard's original calliope was attached to a metal roller set with pins in the manner familiar to Stoddard from the contemporary clockwork music box. The pins on the roller opened valves which admitted steam into the whistles. Later, Stoddard replaced the cylinder with a keyboard, so that the calliope could be played like an organ.

Starting in the 1900s, calliopes began using music rolls instead of a live musician. The music roll operated in a similar manner to a piano roll in a player piano, mechanically operating the keys. Many of these mechanical calliopes retained keyboards, allowing a live musician to play them if needed. During this period, compressed air began to replace steam as the vehicle of producing sound.

Most calliopes disappeared in the mid-20th century, as steam power was replaced with other power sources. Without the demand for technicians that mines and railroads supplied, no support was available to keep boilers running. Only a few calliopes have survived, and these are rarely played.

Tom Waits' 2002 release Blood Money features a track written for trumpet and calliope.


The pronunciation of the word 'calliope' has long been disputed. The Greek muse by the same name is pronounced /kəˈlaɪ.əpiː/ kə-LYE-ə-pee, but the instrument was generally pronounced /ˈkæli.oʊp/ KAL-ee-ohp. A nineteenth century magazine, Reedy’s Mirror, attempted to settle the dispute by publishing this rhyme:[4]

Proud folk stare after me,
Call me Calliope;
Tooting joy, tooting hope,
I am the calliope.

This, in turn, was taken from a poem by Vachel Lindsay, called "The Kallyope Yell" [sic].[5] In this poem, Lindsay uses both pronunciations. An analysis of the poem may be found here ([6]).

Related instruments


The calliope is similar to the pyrophone; the difference between the two is that the calliope is an external combustion instrument and the pyrophone is an internal combustion instrument.

One episode of the first season of Mission Impossible 1966 named "OLD MAN OUT" (parts 1 and 2) makes use of a calliope as a musical instrument and also as a timing cue to the development of the story.

At 1998's Burning Man, a pyrophone referred to as "Satan's Calliope" was powered by ignition of propane inside resonant cavities. Thus this device was incorrectly referred to as a "calliope", since a calliope is an external combustion instrument. See Metro Santa Cruz article Image


The callioflute combines features of the calliope with features of the hydraulophone. This instrument has 12 mouths. Cool water comes out of each mouth. The player operates the instrument by blocking one or more water jets. The use of mouths rather than keys enables polyphonic embouchure-like expressive control so the player can vary the pitch, timbre, and volume of each member of a chord continuously and independent of the other members of a chord.

Another related instrument is the callioflute, a type of hydraulophone played by blocking one or more water jets with the fingers. Blocking a water jet forces water into a heater that converts it to steam. While not a hydraulophone in the strictest sense (sound is produced by steam rather than by water) it facilitates the same expressive capabilities (i.e. polyphonic embouchure) that a hydraulophone facilitates. In this sense the callioflute provides some improvements over the calliope in the sense that the callioflute enables a musician to attain subtle changes in pitch, timbre, volume, and tone, by the way in which the water jets are obstructed with the fingers. Reference: Proceedings of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) International Conference on Multimedia, pp181-190, Singapore, 2005


The Calliaphone is an invention of Norman Baker. He developed an air-blown (versus steam) instrument that could be easily transported.

See also


External links

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