Magical Musical Thing by Mattel
In March 1979, Mattel Toys previewed their Magical Music Thing at the Dallas Toy Show. While it didn’t make a huge splash there, it did get a few mentions in newspapers. It would hit the market later that year in anticipation of being a hit for the 1979 Christmas season.
Invented by Franklin Eventoff, who also invented the technology at the core of the Musical Thing, the force-sensing resistor (FSR). These FSRs whose are materials where the resistance changes when you apply a force, pressure or mechanical stress.
Eventoff would license it to Mattel and the toy would be a nice hit for the company, selling 3 million units. It would live on afterwards because of its relatively simple design and a music-making ability that has given it a bit of cult status over the years.
What is the Magical Musical Thing?
The Magical Musical thing is a 25 button toy musical synthesizer with a single built-in speaker. Buttons are arrayed in two rows and by pushing a button you played a note. By following along with the music in a color-coded and numbered songbook, most kids (and adults) could play simple tunes.
The unit was about 21 inches (0.53 m) long by 3.5 inches (8.89 cm) wide and 2 inches (5.08 cm) high. It is fairly light to handle, which is great for kids, and ran on a 9-volt battery.
The form-factor resembled a very stripped down guitar. And while it is possible to play the Musical Thing while holding it like one, it is a lot easier to play it on your lap or on a tabletop. Here you can see it being used both ways in this ad from 1979
Each Musical Thing came with a songbook and retailed between $9 and $12 depending on location and time of year.
There appear to be some variations of the toy over the years. With colors of both the stickers and plastic changing. These do not have an effect on the usability or sound of it, but it might mess with your memory if you see one that is unfamiliar to you.
Congratulations on owning a Magical Musical Thing instrument. With proper care and treatment, it will become your best musical friend over the years.
My Childhood Impressions
The first time I got to play with a Magical Musical Thing was at a friend’s house in the early eighties. It was one of those toys that he got for Christmas, was really into for about a month, but then couldn’t care less about it.
That meant whenever I was there, I could pick it up and play it. I would attempt to play songs from the song book while we watched TV or did some other passive activity where a kid could to multitask with a toy.
I enjoyed it so much that I would ask to get my own and eventually would one Christmas a year to two later. As you might guess, the same thing happened to me. I was really into it for about a month, learned I was terrible at it, and then stopped playing with it.
After that, it became a noisy time killer that would be passed around the table before D&D sessions. Some of my friends would earnestly try to play simple songs, but mainly it was a noisemaker that added a buzzing electronic background to the chaotic moments before we finally settled down to play.
My Adult Impressions
I am happy to report that recently, I was reunited with the Magical Music Thing and spent an evening playing all the songs from the song book. I didn’t even need to own an original songbook. Thanks to the magic of the internet, anyone can play along.
While I am not a brilliant musician, I found it very easy to play all the songs in the book. Which made me reassess my memories of the toy.
Looking back, I had always thought it was a difficult instrument to play, but it wasn’t the instrument. It was me. I didn’t have the patience to sit down with the song book and, more importantly, I wanted to jam on this thing like it was a guitar. Playing it on a table or your lap is just much easier.
So while the Musical Thing might be a kid’s toy, it is much more enjoyable to play with as an adult.
Now, the sound on this thing wasn’t great. It was over 40 years old at this point, but I did find a video where someone successfully tuned their Musical Thing using a pencil and razor blade. I might need to give that a try.
Here are some photos of this magnificent instrument from my last jam session.
Advertising the Musical Thing
Many people who didn’t own a Magical Musical Thing will still remember it from this ad that they started running for it in 1979. It features two kids sitting on their front steps playing their Musical Things.
They seem pretty evenly matched at first, but the one kid displays a greater talent. This causes the other kid to take the toy and rub it back and forth on this head, making some crazy sound. This result in the most memorable line in the commercial, the well deered, “You’re weird.”
Indeed, he was.
The Legacy of the Magical Musical Thing
What is amazing is that despite being mostly just a noisemaker for kids, the Magical Musical Thing would persevere. In its original run, it would be sold well into 1987. Then, it would eventually take on another life. With circuit bending tinkerers and performers, making them do the unexpected, virtual versions being posted online, and even DIY projects to make similar toys of your own.
The Magical Musical Thing is a wonderful combination of technology, sound, and fun. That captured kid’s attention for nearly a decade, and still manages to find adult fans who are attracted to its history and relative simplicity.
If you want one of your own, they are still pretty easy to find at affordable prices online. So if you have some musical talent or just want to make some noise, give the Magical Musical Thing a try. The people around you might not think you are a great musician when you start playing, but they will think you are weird. Which is pretty great in my book.