All About The Calliope Music Instrument Tuesday June 14 2022, 11:45 PM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
All About The Calliope Music Instrument

What Is A Calliope Instrument?

This hard-to-find, yet quite easy-to-hear musical instrument produces sound by sending steam or compressed air through large whistles. It looks like an organ and gives off a very happy-sounding tone that you would expect to hear at a carnival in the 1800s. There is no way to turn these babies down or change the tone, and some models can be heard literally up to 5 miles away. In terms of range, the standard steam calliope has a 32-note range starting at C3 and ending at G5.

The Origin Of The Calliope

Although Joshua C. Stoddard of Worcester, Massachusetts patented the calliope on October 9, 1855, the Reverend James Birkett of Ovinsham, England invented, what he called, a steam organ in June of 1838 that is basically the same thing. Birkett attached the steam organ to a locomotive from the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway Company but never followed through with a patent. This steam organ was also called steam whistle, air whistle, or trumpet whistle. 

Either way, Joshua C. Stoddard put a lot of work into the calliope creating several different versions of the musical instrument before its official release and patent. After getting a positive reaction from the public, Stoddard founded the American Steam Piano Company which later found even more success under the management of Henry A. Deny.

The Inspiration Behind The Instrument's Name

In Greek mythology, Calliope is a goddess of poetry, music, and dance. She and her sisters (whom she was the so-called chief of) also reside over the art of eloquence. The name Calliope describes something or someone that is "beautifully voiced" (derived from the words kallos, meaning "beauty," and ops, meaning "voice"). The instrument is loud for sure, and not exactly beautiful in an elegant way, but I won't judge the creators for the name too harshly. 

Pronunciation Confusion

There are two ways that people pronounce this instrument. If you're looking for a pronunciation that matches the Greek goddess, you would sound it out as a "kal-eye-o-pee". Most people would prefer to call it by that name to avoid confusion, but many instrumentalists and circus folk like to pronounce it as "kally-ope". I personally like the elegance that comes along with the Greek pronunciation although again, it's not necessarily an elegant instrument. 

Use In The Age Of Steam

In the mid to late 19th century, there was an abundance of steam power at many locations. Steam was often available at venues such as river steamships, amusement parks for electrical power, carousels for propulsion, and circuses for electrical power. Calliopes became a very popular and effective marketing tool for these venues across the US.

Once stream power became less prominent in our society, compressed air eventually began to replace steam as the vehicle for producing the sound in this instrument. In the early 1900s, calliopes began using music rolls instead of using a live musician to play. The music roll operated in a similar manner to a piano roll in a player piano, which mechanically operates the keys.

Current Usage And How To Find One

Currently, you can still find calliopes on Mississippi paddle steamers down south. Here, many competitions between different boats are held to see which boat has the best calliope player. Traditional carousels at entertainment venues at numerous locations including New Hope, PA play calliope music. Miner Company LLC currently sells calliopes that can be shipped within a few days if you can afford them! They average around $10,000 and are definitely rare yet worth buying if you have a love for lost instruments.  

Calliopes In Pop Culture

Although these are near extinct, they have made a lasting impression among those who are music lovers, even in more recent years. A lot of it is due to the nostalgia of hearing the calliope in an entertainment setting like a circus or a boat show. Michael Jackson sang about the Calliope in his song "Carousel". Rock band Kiss used a calliope on their song 'Flaming Youth' from their album release called Destroyer. In the recording "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", The Beatles used tapes of calliope music to create the atmosphere of a circus.

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Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!

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