A calliope is typically very loud. Even some small calliopes are audible for miles. There is no way to vary tone or loudness. Musically, the only expression possible is the pitch, rhythm, and duration of the notes.
Calliope (1874 drawing)
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 to it by Norman Baker, but the "Calliaphone" name is registered by the Miner Company for instruments produced under the Tangley name.
In the age of steam, the steam calliope was particularly used 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. The traction engine could also supply electric power for lighting, and tow the calliope in the circus parade, where 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. Steam instruments often had keyboards made from brass. This was in part to resist the heat and moisture of the steam, but also for the golden shine of the highly polished keys.
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
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 something 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
The Beatles, in recording "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, used tapes of calliope music to create the atmosphere of a circus. Beatles producer George Martin recalled, "When we first worked on Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! John had said that he wanted to 'smell the sawdust on the floor,' wanted to taste the atmosphere of the circus. I said to him, 'What we need is a calliope.' 'A what?' 'Steam whistles, played by a keyboard.'" Unable to find an authentic calliope, Martin resorted to tapes of calliopes playing Sousa marches. "[I] chopped the tapes up into small sections and had Geoff Emerick throw them up into the air, re-assembling them at random."
The song "The Tears of a Clown" from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, first released in 1967 and whose music was composed by Stevie Wonder and Hank Cosby, features a distinctive circus calliope motif, which inspired Smokey Robinson with the lyrical theme of the sad clown.
Footnote by the Blog Author
For an inexplicable reason of personal taste, the blog author does not like organ music. When I hear a long, low organ note, my mind erupts with the question, "Who died?"
The calliope is peppier, happier, and jazzier. It has a life-goes-on cheeriness to it. Calliope music is available to sample on Amazon.com and can be purchased in CD format or as a downloadable mp3 file. My personal favorite of calliope songs is Henry Mancini's chipper boogie-woogie march "Baby Elephant Walk" from the "Hatari" soundtrack.