The Musical Side Of Ben Franklin

Have you ever heard of a musical instrument called the glass armonica? If you think you have, then you might also think I meant to type ‘harmonica’ but you’d be wrong. A glass harmonica is the name used to describe the process of playing music with a wet finger benon a row of glasses, and people have been doing that for centuries. But we’re here today to talk about something that was inspired by that but was much better, Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica.

Ol’ Ben was always tinkering with things that interested him, in addition to being one of the legendary founding fathers. His mind was always working overtime, whether it was inventing something or improving on someone else’s idea, and in 1762 he took the simple idea of the original glass harmonica and turned it into a much better mechanical version. His glass armonica was a standardized instrument that was much better for composers and players alike, and some of the biggest names of the era loved it.

Let’s find out more with a short video from the History Channel.

In the many years that have followed since its introduction, his invention has also been called a glass harmonium, a bowl organ, and a hydrocrystalophone, and at last count more than a hundred composers have written music for the instrument. In addition to the three biggies mentioned in the video (which I’ll remind you were Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn) it also inspired guys like Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, and Strauss.

Here’s a musical piece by Wolfie.

But the armonica didn’t really remain popular for long, and by the 1800’s it had mostly been relegated to the odd solo appearance. Some think that part of the reason for that was that many believed it could cause madness, or at least extreme melancholia, because of its mournful and ethereal sound. One Viennese professor wrote the following: (In German of course.)760183_interface_512x512

…excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that is an apt method for slow self-annihilation.

  • If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it.
  • If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively.
  • If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces.

ben2And the danger might not be limited to those playing it, because some believed that just listening to the strange sounds could cause insanity. But Franklin had no such feelings. He loved to play it himself and was reportedly very good at it. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “The advantages of this instrument are that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, once well tuned, never again wants tuning.”

In recent years, the glass armonica has made somewhat of a comeback, which I think would please its inventor. And beyond that, I think he might even chuckle at how modern technology has caught up to and merged with his favorite invention.


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