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What Is a Jukebox & How Does It Work

What Is a Jukebox & How Does It Work

 A jukebox may seem like an antique relic to the younger generations of today, sporadically spotted in a grandparent’s basement or a 50’s-themed diner. Upon seeing this music-playing machine, they may wonder what a jukebox is and how exactly does it work? For those who remember asking for quarters to play their favorite song instantly feel the nostalgia when there’s a jukebox in sight. 

With a similar style of the arcade games of days past, the classic jukebox was activated whenever you inserted a coin, usually a quarter, and selected your chosen record, which was listed with its own label of a letter and number combination, such as B12, C36, and so on. Part of the fun of using a jukebox in its heyday was running through the list of songs and seeing if yours made the collection. There was a limitation of the number of songs available, but it felt like hitting the jackpot whenever your favorite songs came on. 

Jukeboxes evolved from the pay-to-play concept of the coin-operated phonograph. Rather than having to change records manually, the jukebox technology performs that function automatically. The caveat was that whatever songs were chosen were expected to entertain the whole crowd, meaning that you could hear a song you hated or revel in one you loved but didn’t select. 

As far as size, the traditional jukebox was roughly the length and width of a cabinet, either with a flat or curved glass screen, depending on the design. Some had colorful lights with fluorescent colors, while others kept a classic appearance with wood paneling and chrome features. It was the go-to showpiece and entertainment device from the mid-1940s and into the mid-1980s, hitting its stride during the sock-hop days of the 1950s. 

It was typical to have a jukebox at your neighborhood diner, dive bar, or community dance hall. Even as technology changed and records were replaced with CDs, the mechanics worked similarly to the initial vintage jukebox format. The difference is there were a lot more options and chances that the latest tunes would be available, plus the new jukebox design was slimmer and had a touch screen rather than individual buttons linked to each song. 

How Jukeboxes Evolved in the Digital Age

Although traditional jukeboxes live on in certain bars and themed restaurants, finding one is becoming fewer and far between. For music fans in the modern world, the idea of curating individual playlists is the norm, meaning you know the possibilities of what comes next because you’ve added the songs you like. The random and unexpected shuffle of listening to music is still available via radio and live DJs, but the jukebox built the best type of anticipation, as you waited for your song to be played. 

Now, many music lovers want to embrace the look and feel of hearing songs played from the jukebox and combine the experience with modern jukebox technologies, such as a cd player, bluetooth, or 3-speed turntables. A machine like the jukebox or record player is a welcomed novelty in today’s world, especially since it has an element of rarity involved. It offers a new type of music listening experience from the standard digital playlist that’s streamed through sound systems like smartphones and laptop screens. 

Part of the beauty of music (and the way you listen to it), is that it continues to expand and hold room for all genres, styles, and technologies. For every person that prefers to listen to hip-hop on headphones, there’s another person who likes listening to the sounds of jazz on the record player. The same can be said for the songs played from a jukebox. 

Additionally, as people expand their musical tastes, it’s common for them to visit songs from the past, songs their parents or grandparents may have grown up listening to or music they’ve heard from classic soundtracks. From the big bands sounds of the ‘40s and reaching into the power ballads and pop tunes of the ‘80s, sometimes hearing the music on a record adds another element to the overall aesthetic. It’s not to say current music isn’t as fun to listen to on digital jukeboxes. It’s simply a way to take music lovers of all ages back in time through song. 

Why Nostalgia Drives Lasting Popularity of Jukeboxes 

Anyone who remembers selecting their must-hear song and waiting for it to come on the jukebox knows the joy of anticipation of hearing those first notes begin to play. Conversely, there’s also likely memories of skipped tracks and less-than-quality sound coming through the speakers, depending on the environment, but all that somehow added to the allure of the jukebox sound. 

For those who never lived those moments, the idea of waiting until your chosen song came on rather than skip ahead to your favorite seems unheard of when the majority of music listening devices today come through streaming audio and instantaneous selection. The question continues isn’t just what is a jukebox? It’s also, what is the history of the jukebox and why would we want one? As with any other music listening device, there are just some songs that sound better when played in the way they originally were intended. 

Fortunately, the nostalgia lives on with the countertop jukebox, which is less ominous in size to be more adaptable for home or office listening. Plus, no coins are necessary to hear the music. Digital jukeboxes still deliver the same vibe of days past through its distinctive design but with modern technology’s conveniences. With a clearer sound and more variety than the original jukebox offerings, it’s a way to incorporate a bit of the old and mix in it with something new. 

Creating Your Own Jukebox Playlist with Songs from Every Era

The best songs to play on a jukebox are ones that bring back memories and transport you to another time and place, if only for a few minutes. In honor of the decades when the jukebox industry was most popular, pick songs from the big band and swing era, rock ‘n’ roll classics, and one-hit wonders. Here a few choices to help inspire you to put together a curated song list of your own. 

Come Rain or Come Shine by Duke Ellington

Enjoying musical entertainment in the big band era often meant dressing up in your finest clothes and heading to a community hall or country club where there was dinner and dancing to big band music. As the big band term suggests, there was usually a single singer backed by a full orchestra of instruments, which gives this music its rich and memorable tone. Duke Ellington was one of the big band period leaders, and listening to a few of his songs can allow you to imagine what experiencing it live must have been like. 

At the Hop by Danny & the Juniors

Listening to music you could dance to continued into the 1950s when sock hops were popular. Ladies in poodle skirts and gents in cardigans and button-down shirts fill the imagery of this time, the accepted dress code when everyone convened to dance to hit songs. The upbeat sound and quick tempo of “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors makes it easy to picture people dancing around the jukebox or spread out in a music hall bopping to the music. 

Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes

Motown went mainstream in the 1960s, changing music once again and influencing future sounds we still recognize today. The Supremes led by Diana Ross was one of the biggest girl groups of the time, and “Where Did Our Love Go” was among their many top singles. Motown’s music drew inspiration from the jazz and big band sound of earlier decades and mixed it with a modern flair popular for the time that entertained the masses. 

Up Around the Bend by Creedence Clearwater Revival

The late 1960s and into the 1970s introduced the hippie generation, a time that embraced non-conformist ideals, and with that came music and lyrics that ranged the spectrum, from bluesy melodies, folksy tunes, and what’s now known as classic rock. One of the top successes of the 70’s style was Creedence Clearwater Revival with their driving guitar riffs and a sound that was a mix of rock, blues, and country. 

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper

Like the electric colors of the decade, many of the songs from the ‘80s had a vibrant sound infused with energy. Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” embodies the lighthearted lyrics and pop sound of the 80s. Jukeboxes with singles such as this one started entering gathering spaces popular during that decade, including skating rinks, arcade rooms, and pizza places.

Regardless of whether you know any of these artists, songs, or styles by name, the sounds are timeless enough to be familiar. While the excitement surrounding music from years past may ebb and flow when competing with current mainstream music, they’re often revisited and given new life from generations just discovering their influence. 

The quintessential music-playing device inspired other music machines like boomboxes, CD players, and iPods. However, what’s old can become new again as it adapts with the times. The convenience and technology of today’s music-listening devices are widely known and used, which makes having a jukebox feel all the more special. When you mix all of the best features together into one modern jukebox, it brings the best of both worlds together. 



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