Experience the ‘happiest music on Earth’ this weekend in Dayton

The “happiest music on Earth” will return to Carillon Historical Park next weekend for the 43rd annual Band Organ Rally.

The upbeat definition was coined to describe band organs, the mechanically played portable pipe organs that make the cheerful music often associated with merry-go-rounds and carnivals.

“It makes you feel good. It’s happy music,” said Liz Barnhart of Riverside, who is organizing the rally with her husband, Mike.

The rally, last held in Dayton in 2016, will bring dozens of antique and newly constructed band organs to the park. It is sponsored by the Mid-American Chapter of the Musical Box Society International and the Carousel Organ Association of America.

Band organs range in size from small hand-cranked street organs with 20 pipes tucked inside, sometimes called monkey organs, to huge fairground organs that can have hundreds of pipes.

The elaborate exterior facades that house the organs can be beautifully carved from wood or have colorful, ornate decorations. Many have drums attached to the sides.

The Barnharts’ interest in the musical machines began in the mid-1960s. Liz enjoyed the music the organs made and Mike, a retired electronics engineer, was fascinated by the mechanics. Their hobby has taken them to organ events around the world.

The first organs were played in Ancient Rome, Mike Barnhart said, when hydraulic-powered pipe organs were developed. The early organs evolved into a mechanical instrument that played songs from a pinned barrel, much like a music box.

Barrels progressed to book organs, which used folded cardboard with holes punched in it to make music, and in the late 1800s paper rolls were discovered.

Today some contemporary organs are outfitted with electronic systems that have expanded the organ repertoire from carnival-type music to jazz, rock, big band and the Ohio State fight song.

Mike Barnhart designed his own fairground band organ in 2002 after the larger production Wurlitzer Model 165 band organs that made music at fairgrounds, roller rinks and dance halls in the 1900s.

The organ was built by the Stinson Band Organ Company in Bellefontaine, the only remaining producer of band organs in the United States. “I said ‘this thing has got to be built. It deserves to be built,’” he said.

The Barnharts’ organ, which will be at the rally, is pneumatically operated with a 75-track paper roll and is also outfitted to play more than 150 songs electronically.

The façade of the organ, which has been named Treviris, is a replica of the 1,700 -year-old Roman artifact, Porta Nigra, the gate to the city of Trier, Germany.

Flanked by two towers, the organ stands 6-feet-tall and weighs 1,000 pounds. In the front, gently swiveling to the music, is Treviris, the Goddess of Trier, hand-carved from wood.

Inside, 228 pipes create countless musical sounds including tubas, trumpets, violins and flutes. Mounted among the pipes are sleigh bells, cow bells, and a referee’s Acme whistle. Among the music makers on the outside of the organ are a base drum and cymbal, a timpani drum and reiterating castanets.

The music is infectious and the Barnharts enjoy watching visitors’ steps quicken and match the tempo of the melodies as they stroll around band organ gatherings. Children often stop to dance and twirl to the music.

“You will see old instruments, new instruments and watch the organ owners make their instruments play at the rally,” Liz Barnhart said. “You will be happy that you went there. I think you’ll enjoy hearing the happiest music on Earth.”


What: The 43rd Annual Band Organ Rally

When: Saturday, July 21, 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. and Sunday, July 22 from 12 p.m. -5 p.m.

Where: Carillon Historical Park, 1000 Carillon Blvd., Dayton

Admission: Adults: $8 (ages 18-59), Senior: $7; Children (ages 3-17): $5. Children under 3 and Dayton History members: free

More: For information about Carillon Historical Park call (937) 293-2841.

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