I remember walking down an Amsterdam street, thinking I imagined music in my head until I finally ran into the source behind it: a big hunk of large parked machinery on the sidewalk.
Draaiorgel, or barrel organs, are huge triggers of culture shock in the Netherlands — at least, they were to me.
With fans (and foes) amongst tourists and locals alike, there’s a certain allure about barrel organs’ roaming the packed and sometimes empty Dutch streets throughout cities and villages.
I know I’ve been mesmerized by them. 🤩 However, others, not so much.
What is it?
A Draaiorgel (or pierement) is basically an old-fashioned yet colourful musical automaton on wheels, with a culture and a history that’s unique to the Netherlands. 🥁
Think of them as one-of-a-kind Dutch jukeboxes: it’s a sight (and sound) not to be missed during your stay in the Netherlands. 🗺
Often made of painted wood, occasionally of metal, entertainers move the barrel organs across streets either manually or by pushing them in front of (or behind) a bike, making frequent stops at corners and squares.
Once a spot is claimed by the musical beast, the street entertainer fires up the music to the sound of rattling coins in a tin can, inviting spectators (along with their phones) to wander, wonder, and leave coins. 🤳
With ornate dolls on the front window of the organ, a manual wheel that allows the entertainer to operate the machine by hand if needed, and sometimes a visible organ book where the machine plays notes from — the mechanics and details behind barrel organs alone are enchanting.
Why do they do it?
The tradition of barrel organs dates back to the 18th century as a form of entertainment through street music. 🎶
Although perhaps not as popular now as it was then, the tradition of roaming barrel organs is a part of the Netherlands’ cultural identity to this day.
Why is it quirky?
Whether you’re a fan of creepy, 🤡 circus-like music bursting out randomly in mid-air, or just an unconditional admirer of Dutch culture, the draaiorgel is very unique to the Netherlands.
Not only is it a Dutch experience, but there are also families and history revolving around this art.
The Perlee family company, one of the most popular and oldest barrel organ families in the Netherlands, still exist to this day in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam.
Should you join in?
Look, you’re going to join in no matter what. Noise pollution aside, while it’s most popular during summer’s warm months, pierement street entertainers can be spotted at various events and markets throughout the year.
If you’re in Amsterdam, barrel organs can sometimes be heard around Dam Square or Klaverstraat.
Spotted the giant music truck quietly rolling down a street? Then rest assured they’ll be stopping at a nearby location to play their sweet tunes soon, so feel free to follow on foot (or run in the opposite direction). 🚶♀️
If you’re not able to catch a live barrel organ performance in the street, no worries, as you can still see a draaiorgel display in a museum instead.
Utrecht’s Museum Speelklok carries its own collection of restored barrel organs, and if you’re in Haarlem, make sure to check out their Draaiorgelmuseum — a place that’s fully dedicated to the lost art.
What do you think of this Dutch quirk? Have you experienced it? Tell us in the comments below! 👇
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 2021, and was fully updated in November 2022 for your reading pleasure.