Glass Harmonica

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The Glass Harmonica, originally named the Armonica was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761 after hearing a concert of 50 tuned water glasses during a trip to Europe. Deeply touched and inspired Ben Franklin did away with water tuning, broke off the stems, connected the glasses together, put them on a rotating spit with foot pedals and the Armonica was born. By making the glasses tuned, rather than relying on water, the glass could be put sideways and connected to be able to play faster rhythms and melodies as well as sustain notes. Franklin modernized the musical glasses and turned them not only into an elegant and playable instrument but real instrument as well (Hadlock). Playing water glasses, a fancy parlor trick, became a serious musical instrument and the first instrument invented by an American (Finkenbeiner).

The Glass Harmonica was never produced on a large scale but between the late 18th and the early 19th century 400 works were written for it by composers, including Beethoven and Mozart (Pollack). The instrument experienced it's largest fame as Marie Antoinette learned to play and it was featured in the Opera Lucia de Lammermoor fueling Lucia's dramatic descend into madness.

But the musical glasses predate Ben Franklin and were listed as musical instruments as early 1300 a.d. in the Wen Hsien Tung K'ao, a Chinese dictionary of musical instruments but dates even earlier than this and existed all over the world (King). The musical glasses were valued at having occult magical properties and experiments with different liquids (brandy, water, wine, salt water, and oil) inside the glasses were performed to discover different desired effects. "The diverse sounds produced by the contrasting content of the glasses were thought not only to correspond to the emotions aroused by the four "humours" of the human body." As later proven by Ben Franklin, it was not the contents of the glass bowls that held the emotional effects of the glass music but the glass themselves that contained the power of pitch and vibration (King).

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The Glass Harmonica was named after the latin word for harmony, to imply the harmonic sound it produced but the sound developed a bad reputation of shattering nerves. As Thomas Bloch notes in his introduction to "Glass Harmonica" an album compilation including his own original and modern work, the Armonica was accused of causing, "nervous problems, domestic squabbles, premature, deliveries, fatal disorders, and animal convulsions." The glass music is described as having both shocking and lulling qualities, but the best description I found for the Glass Harmonica is from the children's book titled, "Ben Franklin and his Glass Armonica." "Many people became afraid of the armonica. Some thought it had magical powers. Some said it revived people who had fainted. Others claimed it made people faint. One man said the armonica made his dog chase its tail" (Stevens).

Structure of Harmonica

One full octave (48 notes, two octaves above and below middle C) of finely tuned glass cups were turned on their side and fit within each other almost to the point of touching. They were all mounted on a driveshaft controlled by a motor powered by the users foot and were seperated and secured to the driveshaft by corks inserted into the bottom of the bowls. Sometimes a moisturizer was used spraying the cups lightly at the bottom of the instrument to keep them constantly moisturized. However, most of the time, the moisture came from the players fingertips. This became an improvement on the traditional musical glass arrangement because, "The instrument could be played much more like a piano; chords and faster musical passages would be easier to achieve, since one would not awkwardly have to coordinate turning one's finger around the rim of each glass." (Finkenbeiner 139)


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A Glass Harmonica being played

Creating properly tuned glass bowls was extremely difficult. Each bowl was hand blown making every set different from the others. In fact, only one bowl out of every 100 blown was the proper size and tune. Thus, the completion of an entire four-octave Glass Harmonica was a strenuous and inconsistant task. The glass used also is believed to be one of the reasons for its downfall and disapperance into obscurity. There was a high amount of lead in the glass and many years later it was theorized that people went mad when they played it. The lead would, "Leach through the fingertips into the bloodstream.. causing nerve damage." (Finkenbeiner 140)

Foot Pedals and Framing

The housing for the bowls themselves greatly resembled a piano or a table. The bowls were strung through a bar that rested inside a box container with four legs portruding from it. A foot pedal was located on the bottom (much like a piano) that powered the motor that spun the bowls. The player had to sit in front of the instrument with their arms out the entire time. The construction did not take into consideration easy portability or storage.


The player had to sit in front of the instrument the entire time. Their hands were held out over the bowls as one would hold their hands over piano keys. If no moisturizer was built into the instrument the player would have to keep their hands wet the entire time in order to create any sound from the bowls. Sometimes players would coat their hands in chalk but most of the time they used water or oil. The amount and consistency of the liquid used changed the sound of the tone. In 1884 "Table Talk" published a quote about men and the Glass Harmonica: "Men are like musical glasses - to produce their finest tones, you must keep them wet.

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Women on the other hand were well accustomed to the instrument, that with a foot pedal, was sewing machine like as well as piano-like. This structure makes the armonica, as an instrument, feminine. The sound of the instrument already resembled female singing, but the decorative qualities are emphasized over the technological or mechanical aspects. "To play the armonica was to hold a pose, to present a performance of stillness, balance, and silence. Playing, in short, resembled the "not-playing" depicted in so many contemporary paintings of women seated at keyboard instruments" (Hadlock). The women are present but not engaged. The delicacy and elegance of the glass arranged in size and order, to illustrate the effortless sound, playing, and the fact the instrument requires only "touch" and not other actions like pressing or pulling that imply struggle.


The sound of the armonica is mostly described as "ethereal" and "disembodied" but because of the musical quality of the glass the sound is actually double folded. The music seems to be "disembodied" and even spiritual because the armonica has no direct outlet and the music escape from all planes. As the finger scrapes against the glass two sounds are created, "the scrape "underneath" and the pure sound "above," as each tone separates into material trace and abstract tone." When the pitch descends to lower notes on the armonica scale the scraping sound becomes more pronounced and the pitch is muffled. The higher the note, the easier it is for the pitch to escape in a clear crisp sound and needing a lighter touch, hardly a scrape. "Thus the armonica is not simply "bodiless"; rather it makes audible the process of spirit transcending body, the sublimation of rough, corporealized sound into ideal (feminine) voice" (Hadlock).


Inspired by a performer playing musical glasses, Franklin invented the glass armonica. He was not, however, alone in being inspired; various composers created music based on the unique sound produced by this instrument. Some of the most notable music composers of the glass armonica are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Though the instrument of the glass armonica is a digital media, with a set number of octaves and 48 notes, to put it into practice is an analog technique. The composer or player of a glass armonica can arrange and rearrange the 48 notes to produce a different melody each time.

Mozart's Adagio Media:adagio.mp3; Mozart's Rondo Media:rondo.mp3

Now it's your turn to play the armonica!

Other Uses

As the popularity of the glass armonica increased, professionals and technicians began to utilize its unique sound to produce a variety of effects. Soon, the glass armonica developed a reputation of having calming, even healing, qualities.

Mesmer and His Practice One of the most interesting and creative uses of the glass armonica was by "Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, who employed hypnosis to treat a variety of ills, used the ethereal sound to induce deeper trances in his patients" (Fox). Though the glass armonica did not have a direct impact on any of his treatments, Mesmer had learned that his discovery of animal magnetism was propagated by music (Pattie) as it would "induce deeper states of hypnosis in his patients" (Finkenbeiner 140).

Mesmer's practice began in Vienna, but he was discredited upon the treatment of Maria Theresa von Paradis, a well known pianist who was also blind (Pattie 67). Though she had tried various methods to cure her of her blindness, everything failed aside from Mesmer's animal magnetism. She regained a minimal amount of vision, but nonetheless fell into a bout of depression because she could not readjust herself to the sensory aspects of sight. Her musical talent suffered as well. Upon this failure, Mesmer then moved to Paris, where he experimented on aristocrats, surgeons, and his own right-hand man, Dr. Charles d'Elson (Pattie 103). These treatments were all conducted in a private manner, with minimal lighting and the only noise intrusion being the sound of the glass armonica. And while his discoveries were never really legitimized, they were nonetheless investigated by the Faculty of Medicines, despite the fact Franklin himself did not believe in animal magnetism.

The word "mesmerize" is a direct derivation from Mesmer's practice. As Mesmer himself began to lose credit, "perhaps this use of the instrument was enough to give it a bad reputation, encouraging people to fear it and think it evil" (Finkenbeiner 140).

Healing Qualities While Franklin may not have entirely bought the concept of animal magnetism, he did believe that the glass armonica some special healing quality. In 1772, Franklin went to Prince Adam Czartoryski of Poland about his wife who had been suffering of melancholia (Lipowski). She recounts Franklin's visit, saying:

"I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters. Wishing to distract me, my husband explained to me who Franklin was and to what he owed his fame… Franklin had a noble face with an expression of engaging kindness. Surprised by my immobility, he took my hands and gazed at me saying: pauvre jeune femme ["poor young lady']. He then opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, "Madam, you are cured." Indeed in that moment I was cured of my melancholia. Franklin offered to teach me how to play the armonica - I accepted without hesitation, hence he gave me twelve lessons" (Lipowski 362).

Phantasmagoria The glass armonica was a one-way communication media. Those who made use of it often had a goal of evoking some sort of emotion in their audience. While its use in medical practices was to induce a tranquility in patients, a man by the name of Étienne-Gaspard Robertson wanted to capitalize on its more harmonic qualities.

Robertson's favorite instrument was the glass armonica. He believed that "it contributed powerfully to the effects of the fantasmagoria, in preparing not only the minds but the very senses for strange impressions by a melody so sweet that it sometimes gave great irritation to the nervous system" (Heard). Thus, he used its haunting melodies in conjunction with the magic lantern to put "thought to sleep; all the ideas seem to concentrate on one and the same object and one and the same impression" (Heard).

While those like Robertson and Mesmer basked in the glass armonica's hypnotic qualities, it was less than half a century when it began to disappear because of public fear of its power. It was "believed that it caused insanity, nervous disorders, convulsions in dogs and cats, marital disputes, and even that it woke people from the dead" (Finkenbeiner 140) and "rumors spread that the music itself could cause mental illness. The author of a 1788 manual on the armonica advised that some people avoid playing the instrument, 'in order that their state of mind not be aggravated'" (Fox). In fact, it was only a matter of time before "people so feared to touch it that a keyboard form of the instrument was devised: by striking a key, a spring would activate a wooden hammer covered with wet leater, which would reach out and make contact with the glass rim, producing a note in the same manner as direct contact with the natural finger would have" (Finkenbeiner 140). The variety of symptoms has led to speculation that the lead in the paint and glass resulted in lead poisoning, it has never been proven (Fox). Therefore, while minute details (such as the paint along the glass rims) may seem to serve no purpose, it is unclear whether or not they in fact hold a greater purpose in the story of the glass armonica.

Modern Harmonica

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Finkenbeiner's Patent 1983

Remediation and Finkenbeiner's Patent

The Glass Harmonica now, after its explosive popularity and dramatic fall from grace by vicious rumor and violent symptoms, has not disappeared from the public eye completely. The new armonica's are now made with quartz instead of lead filled glass and the frame features motorized functions. But the model Franklin introduced some 300 years has hardly been improved upon. The structure of the Glass Harmonica is apparently close to perfection in its piano like structure. Franklin did design the instrument to be more playable and less awkward which apparently has worked very well. Glass Harmonica enthusiast, composer, and builder, Gerhard Finkenbeiner invented the modern armonica and filed the patent in 1983. The new armonica's, made with quartz, are improved on very minimal scale. They feature a motor so foot pedals are not needed and a built in mister keeping the glasses consistently wet. Minor improvements that are ultimately arbitrary and seem more trouble than their worth. The glasses can become too wet and with a motor the rhythm becomes less individualized. The music of the glass harmonica are still featured in modern music, "the glass harmonica [is played] on three of Linda Ronstadt's CD's…[titled] Cristal: Glass Music Through the Ages (Pollack). The remediation of the armonica leaves the instrument altogether and exists electronically and digitally on function keys on electric keyboards, called glass harp reproducing the glass-like sound without the ethereal or reverberating qualities. Although the electronic sound may lack the qualities are driving people mad and making them think they were dead, "Mrs. Franklin stirred. She was only half awake. When she heard the music, she thought she was dead. She thought the music was angels singing. She thought she had died and gone to heaven" (Stevens), the sound is too far from the wine glass original. The glass harmonica was first just the vibrating rims of wine glasses and now has been transformed and translated to be play on a full scale electronic keyboard piano.

Works Cited

Mozart Adagio and Rondo (KV 617) audio clips taken from Culture Mediation International <>

  • Bloch, Thomas, "Glass Harmonica" Introduction to album, HNH International, 2001.
  • Finkenbeiner, Gerhard, and Vera Meyer, "The Glass Harmonica: A Return from Obscurity." Leonardo, Vol. 20, No. 2, Special Issue: Visual Art, Sound, Music and Technology (1987): 139-142. JStor. NYU. 8 Nov. 2007.
  • Gerhard Finkenbeiner, Patent on Glass harmonicaPatent number: 4589322, Filing date: Aug 12, 1983,Issue date: May 20, 1986, Inventor: Gerhard Finkenbeiner, U.S. Classification 84402; 84410,International Classification G10D 1308.
  • Hadlock, Heather, Sonorous Bodies: Women and the Glass Harmonica Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 53, No. 3. (Autumn, 2000), pp. 507-542.
  • King, Hyatt A., The Musical Glass and the Glass Harmonica, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 72nd Sess. (1945-1946), pp. 97-122) Oxford University Press.
  • Pattie, Frank A., Mesmer and Animal Magnetism: A Chapter in the History of Medicine, (Hamilton, NY : Edmonston Publishing, Inc, 1994).
  • Lipowski, Z.J., "Benjamin Franklin as a Psychotherapist: a Forerunner of Brief Psychotherapy." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 27 (1984): 361-366.
  • Pollack, Michael Glass, Wet Fingers and a Mysterious Disappearance, The New York Times. December 12, 2001 Wednesday, The Arts/ Cultural Desk, Final edition.
  • Stevens, Bryna Ben Franklin's Glass Armonicapictures by Priscilla Kiedowski, Carolrhoda Books inc. Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1983.