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What is An Armonica?

Mozart wrote for the armonica.
Venice, Italy is the home of European glassblowing.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 July 2014
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An armonica is a very unique type of crystallophone, a musical instrument which uses glass to produce the desired sound. This instrument was immensely popular in the 1700s and early 1800s before it experienced a marked decline; in the late 20th century, several musicians revived the armonica, performing various works on this amazing instrument to get people interested in it. You may be able to hear an armonica performance in your area, especially if you have an active historical society, and several examples of armonicas can be seen on display in museums.

If you have ever run a wet finger around the rim of a glass, you have an idea of what an armonica sounds like. Instead of using a single glass, however, an armonica or glass harmonica involves the use of a series of nested glass bowls which have been created in very specific sizes to generate the desired tones. The bowls are mounted on a spindle which is spun by an engine or foot pedal, and the musician plays the armonica by dipping his or her fingers in water and running them along the glasses.

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The sound of the armonica is quite distinctive. Many people say that it is very eerie and ethereal, while others find it a bit grating, and it is impossible to replicate with other instruments. Several composers actually wrote pieces specifically for the armonica, and numerous other pieces have been adapted for this intriguing instrument to showcase its range of abilities. Mozart and Donizetti, among numerous others, wrote works for the armonica.

The history of the armonica begins in Venice, home of European glassblowing. Over time, Venetian glassmakers challenged themselves into creating extremely delicate and ornate pieces of glassware, and fine glassware became highly prized, and very expensive, in Europe. As early as the 1600s, people noted that when wet hands were run over glassware, a very distinct sound was produced, and by the 1700s, people were playing wineglasses which had been filled with various amounts of water to create the desired pitch.

When Benjamin Franklin heard such a performance in the 1760s, he was inspired enough to try and invent a version which would be easier to play, and the result was the armonica. His invention allows musicians to play up to 10 bowls at one, creating a very lush, rich sound which cannot be produced by just playing wineglasses. Franklin performed on his armonica regularly, and the instrument became a popular fad for a brief period of time, especially in Germany.

The decline of the armonica is a bit hard to explain. In the 1800s, some people claimed that the instrument drove people crazy with its intense sound, and historians have suggested that this may have led to the instrument's decline. The armonica is also difficult to transport, which could have made it hard to sponsor concerts and other events. However, this instrument probably simply suffered from being difficult to amplify. An armonica will be overwhelmed by a regular orchestra, and the sound is difficult to hear in a large concert hall; armonica performances are usually best heard at close range, and do not lend themselves well to the grand concert halls of the 19th century.

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