What is a Glass Harmonica?

Jane Harmon

A glass harmonica, also called a glass armonica, is a type of musical instrument. It was inspired by the sound that a person can make by running his or her wet finger around the rim of a drinking glass. Street performers during the 18th century made music this way, varying the notes by varying the amount of water in each glass.

Beethoven wrote music for the glass harmonica.
Beethoven wrote music for the glass harmonica.

Invented by Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin served as a liaison between several American colonies and England, their parent country, during the years leading up to the Revolution, and it was while he was living in London that he heard music being made from glasses. He considered the tone worthy of more than a novelty act, and he invented the glass harmonica. In 1761, he created a series of graduated bowls, with the pitch of the note depending on the size of the bowl, making it unnecessary to have water in the bowls. This meant that the bowls no longer needed to be "right side up" and could be nested within one another, from smallest to largest.

Glass harmonicas are inspired by the sound made when a wet finger is run around the rim of a drinking glass.
Glass harmonicas are inspired by the sound made when a wet finger is run around the rim of a drinking glass.

Bowls on a Spindle

A glass harmonica, then, was a series of glass bowls tuned to particular notes, with holes drilled in their bottoms so that they could be strung on a spindle. The spindle was laid horizontally into a cradle and was connected to foot pedals. The player could turn the spindle — and thus the bowls — by operating the pedals and could control the speed at which the spindle turned.

How it is Played

The player made music by wetting his or her fingertips and pressing them on the rims of the spinning bowls to make the individual notes. Pressing more than one bowl's rim produced chords. The music was described as ethereal and angelic.

Popularity in the 1700s

This instrument quickly became popular in Europe. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven were among the composers to write music for it. Glass blowers had difficulty keeping up with demand as glass harmonicas appeared in many genteel homes throughout Europe.

Malady Myths

The rage was relatively short-lived, however. Many performers claimed that the music upset them emotionally, and one noted glass harmonica player, Marianne Davies, ended her days in an asylum, which many people attributed to her close association with the instrument. When early hypnotist Franz Mesmer began using the glass harmonica in his demonstrations of "mesmerism," the instrument acquired some of the disrepute in which he was held. Soon, all varieties of maladies were being attributed to both the playing of the instrument and the hearing of its music.

It is possible that players of the glass harmonica may have acquired lead poisoning from the glass used, but the claims of ill health effects from simply hearing the music are unfounded. The sounds produced by a glass harmonica are the same as are produced by Tibetan brass singing bowls, which are sounded by rubbing a wooden rod around the rim. Singing bowls have been used for meditation and religious celebration in Tibet for hundreds of years, so any adverse health effects almost certainly would have been noticed.

Modern Rebirth

The glass harmonica fell out of favor, and after about 1820, it was no longer being made. It was revived in 1984 by a glass-maker in Boston named Gerhard Finkenbeiner, and it has been used by some players in the early 21st century, particularly at tourist sites that depict colonial life. Modern glass harmonicas are rotated by electricity, not foot pedals, and the bowls are made of pure quartz crystal.

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