Glass harmonica

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Not to be confused with Jal tarang.
Spinning glass disks (bowls) on a common shaft are arranged with the lower notes (larger disks) to the left and higher notes (smaller disks) to the right.

The glass harmonica, also known as the glass armonica, bowl organ, hydrocrystalophone, or simply the armonica (derived from ἁρμονία harmonia, the Greek word for harmony),[1][2] is a type of musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls or goblets graduated in size to produce musical tones by means of friction (instruments of this type are known as friction idiophones).

Because its sounding portion is made of glass, the glass harmonica is a crystallophone. The phenomenon of rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine goblet to produce tones is documented back to Renaissance times; Galileo considered the phenomenon (in his Two New Sciences), as did Athanasius Kircher.

Although the instrument as we know it today was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, the Irish musician Richard Pockrich is typically credited as the first to play an instrument composed of glass vessels by rubbing his fingers around the rims.[3] Beginning in the 1740s, he performed in London on a set of upright goblets filled with varying amounts of water. His career was cut short by a fire in his room, which killed him and destroyed his apparatus. A friend of Benjamin Franklin and a fellow of the Royal Society, Edward Delaval, extended the experiments of Pockrich, contriving a set of glasses better tuned and easier to play.[4] During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention playing a similar instrument in England.


A glass harp, an ancestor of the glass harmonica, being played in Rome. The rims of wine glasses filled with water are rubbed by the player's fingers to create the notes.

The name "glass armonica" (also glassharmonica, glass harmonica, harmonica de verre or armonica de verre in French, Glasharmonika in German) refers to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. When Benjamin Franklin invented his mechanical version of the instrument, he called it the armonica, based on the Italian word "armonia," which means "harmony."[5] The instrument consisting of a set of wine glasses (usually tuned with water) is generally known in English as "musical glasses" or "glass harp."

The word hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica is also recorded, composed of Greek roots to mean something like "harmonica to produce music for the soul by fingers dipped in water" (hydro- for "water," daktul- for "finger," psych- for "soul").[6] The Oxford Companion to Music mentions that this word is "the longest section of the Greek language ever attached to any musical instrument, for a reader of The Times wrote to that paper in 1932 to say that in his youth he heard a performance of the instrument where it was called a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica."[7] The Museum of Music in Paris displays a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica.[8]

Franklin's armonica[edit]

Benjamin Franklin invented a radically new arrangement of the glasses in 1761 after seeing water-filled wine glasses played by Edmund Delaval at Cambridge in England in May of 1761.[9] Franklin, who called his invention the "armonica" after the Greek word for harmony,[citation needed] worked with London glassblower Charles James to build one, and it had its world premiere in early 1762, played by Marianne Davies.

In Franklin's treadle-operated version, 37 bowls were mounted horizontally on an iron spindle. The whole spindle turned by means of a foot pedal. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with water moistened fingers. Rims were painted different colors according to the pitch of the note. A notes were dark blue, B notes purple, C red, D orange, E yellow, F green, G blue, and accidentals white.[10] With the Franklin design it is possible to play ten glasses simultaneously if desired, a technique that is very difficult if not impossible to execute using upright goblets. Franklin also advocated the use of a small amount of powdered chalk on the fingers, which under some acidic water conditions helped produce a clear tone.

A modern glass armonica built using Benjamin Franklin's design

Some attempted improvements on the armonica included adding keyboards, placing pads between the bowls to reduce vibration,[11] and using violin bows. These variations never caught on because they did not sound as pleasant.

Another supposed improvement claimed in ill-informed post-period observations of non-playing instruments was to have the glasses rotate into a trough of water. However, William Zeitler put this idea to the test by rotating an armonica cup into a basin of water: the water has the same effect as putting water in a wine glass – it changes the pitch. With several dozen glasses, each a different diameter and thus rotating with a different depth, the result would be musical cacophony.[12] It also made it much harder to make the glass speak, and muffled the sound.

In 1975, an original armonica was acquired by the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis and put on display, albeit without its original glass bowls (they were destroyed during shipment).[13] It was purchased through a musical instrument dealer in France, from the descendants of Mme. Brillon de Jouy, a neighbor of Benjamin Franklin's from 1777 to 1785, when he lived in the Paris suburb of Passy.[13] Some 18th- and 19th-century specimens of the armonica have survived into the 21st century. Franz Mesmer also played the armonica and used it as an integral part of his Mesmerism.

An original Franklin armonica is in the archives at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, having been donated in 1956 by Franklin's descendants after "the children took great delight in breaking the bowls with spoons" during family gatherings. It is only placed on display for special occasions, such as Franklin's birthday. The Franklin Institute is also the home of the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.[14]

A website has attempted to catalog publicly known Franklin-era glass armonicas.[15] The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has an early 19th century instrument on display, which is occasionally used for public performances and recordings.[16][17]


Part of the manuscript score of "Aquarium" from the Carnival of the Animals. The top staff is the (glass) Harmonica

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more than 100 other composers composed works for the glass harmonica; some pieces survived in the repertoire in transcriptions for more conventional instruments. Since it was rediscovered during the 1980s[clarification needed] composers have written again for it (solo, chamber music, opera, electronic music, popular music) including Jan Erik Mikalsen, Regis Campo, Etienne Rolin, Philippe Sarde, Damon Albarn, Tom Waits, Michel Redolfi, Cyril Morin, Stefano Giannotti, Thomas Bloch, and Guillaume Connesson.

The music for the ballet Othello by American composer Elliot Goldenthal opens and closes with the glass harmonica. The ballet was performed at San Francisco Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, and on tour in Europe including at the Opera Garnier. George Benjamin's opera Written on Skin, which premiered at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival, includes a prominent part for written for "armonica". This was originally intended for the glass harmonica, but the composer prefers the use of a verrophone.

A piece played almost entirely on a glass harmonica.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

European monarchs indulged in it, and even Marie Antoinette took lessons as a child from Marianne Davies. Camille Saint-Saëns used this instrument in his The Carnival of the Animals (in movements 7 and 14).

Gaetano Donizetti originally included it in Lucia di Lammermoor as a haunting accompaniment to the heroine's mad scenes, though before the premiere he rewrote the part for two flutes.[18] Some older references say that Tchaikovsky's first draft of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from the ballet The Nutcracker called for glass harmonica, and that he changed it to celesta before the premiere. However, this story is possibly inaccurate, as Tchaikovsky was possibly always going to use the celesta[citation needed].

Purported dangers[edit]

The instrument's popularity did not last far beyond the 18th century. Some claim this was due to strange rumors that using the instrument caused both musicians and their listeners to go mad. It is a matter of conjecture how pervasive that belief was; all the commonly cited examples of this rumor are German, if not confined to Vienna.

One example of alleged effects from playing the glass harmonica was noted by a German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung:

The harmonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation. If you are suffering from any kind of nervous disorder, you should not play it; if you are not yet ill you should not play it; if you are feeling melancholy you should not play it.[19]

Marianne Davies, who played flute and harpsichord — and a young woman said to be related to Franklin — became proficient enough at playing the armonica to offer public performances. After touring for many years in duo performances with her celebrated vocalist sister was also said to have been afflicted with a melancholia attributed to the plaintive tones of the instrument.[4]

Marianne Kirchgessner was an armonica player; she died at the age of 39 of pneumonia or an illness much like it.[20] However, others, including Franklin, lived long lives. By 1820 the glass armonica had disappeared from frequent public performance, perhaps because musical fashions were changing – music was moving out of the relatively small aristocratic halls of Mozart's day into the increasingly large concert halls of Beethoven and his successors, and the delicate sound of the armonica simply could not be heard.

For a time the armonica achieved a genuine vogue. Like most vogues, that for the armonica eventually passed. The sound-producing mechanism did not generate sufficient power to fill the large halls that became home to modern stringed instruments, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. That it was glass, and subject to easy breakage, did not help either.[4]

A modern version of the "purported dangers" claims that players suffered lead poisoning because armonicas were made of lead glass. However, there is no known scientific basis for the theory that merely touching lead glass can cause lead poisoning. Furthermore, historical replicas by Eisch use so-called 'White Crystal' replacing the lead with a higher potash content, many modern devices, such as those made by Finkenbeiner, are made from pure silica glass.[21] Lead poisoning was common in the 18th and early 19th centuries for both armonica players and non-players alike: doctors prescribed lead compounds for a long list of ailments, and lead or lead oxide was used as a food preservative and in cookware and eating utensils. Trace amounts of lead that armonica players in Franklin's day received from their instruments would likely have been dwarfed by lead from other sources, such as the lead-content paint used to mark visual identification of the bowls to the players.[22]

Perception of the armonica sound[edit]

The somewhat disorienting quality of the ethereal sound is due in part to the way that humans perceive and locate ranges of sounds. Above 4,000 Hertz we primarily use the volume of the sound to differentiate between each ear (left and right) and thus triangulate, or locate, the source. Below 1,000 Hertz we use the 'phase differences' of sound waves arriving at our ears to identify left and right for location. The predominant timbre of the armonica is in the range of 1,000–4,000 hertz, which coincides with the sound range where the brain is 'not quite sure' and thus we have difficulty locating it in space (where it comes from), and referencing the source of the sound (the materials and techniques used to produce it).[23]

Benjamin Franklin himself described the armonica's tones as "incomparably sweet". The full quotation, written in a letter to Giambattista Beccaria, an Italian priest and electrician, is "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."[4]

Modern revival[edit]

Dennis James plays the Glass Harmonica at the Poncan Theatre in Ponca City, Oklahoma, on April 2, 2011.

Music for glass harmonica was all-but-unknown from 1820 until the 1930s (although Gaetano Donizetti intended for the aria "Il dolce suono" from his 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor to be accompanied by a glass armonica, and Richard Strauss specified use of the instrument in his 1919 opera Die Frau ohne Schatten), when German virtuoso Bruno Hoffmann began revitalizing interest in his individual goblet instrument version that he named the glass harp for his stunning performances. Playing his "glass harp" (with Eisch manufactured custom designed glasses mounted in a case designed with underlying resonance chamber) he transcribed or rearranged much of the literature written for the mechanized instrument, and commissioned contemporary composers to write new pieces for his goblet version.

Franklin's glass armonica was reworked yet again by master glassblower and musician, Gerhard B. Finkenbeiner (1930–1999) in 1984. After thirty years of experimentation, Finkenbeiner's prototype consisted of clear glasses and glasses later equipped with gold bands mimicking 18th-century designs. Those with gold bands indicate the equivalent of the black keys on the piano, simplifying the multi-hued painted bowl rims with white accidentals as designed by Franklin. Finkenbeiner Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce versions of these instruments commercially as of 2014, featuring glass elements made of pure quartz.[24][25][26]

French instrument makers and artists Bernard and François Baschet invented a modern variation of the Chladni Euphone in 1952, the crystal organ or Cristal di Baschet, which consists of up to 52 chromatically tuned resonating metal rods that are set into motion by attached glass rods that are rubbed with wet fingers. The Cristal Di Baschet differs mainly from the other glass instruments in that the identical length and thickness glass rods are set horizontally, and attach to the tuned metal stems that have added metal blocks for increasing resonance. The result is a fully acoustic instrument, and impressive amplification obtained using fiberglass or metal cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out multi-resonant metal part in the shape of a flame. some thin added metallic wires resembling cat whiskers are placed under the instrument supposedly to increase the sound power of high-pitched frequencies..

Dennis James recorded an album of all glass music, Cristal: Glass Music Through the Ages co-produced by Linda Ronstadt and Grammy Award-winning producer John Boylan.[27] James plays the glass armonica, the Cristal di Baschet and the Seraphim on the CD in original historical compositions and new arrangements for glass by Mozart, Scarlatti, Schnaubelt, and Fauré[27] and collaborates on the recording with the Emerson String Quartet, operatic soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, and Ronstadt.[27] James played glass instruments on Marco Beltrami's film scores for The Minus Man (1999) and The Faculty (1998).[28] "I first became aware of glass instruments at about the age of 6 while visiting the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I can still recall being mesmerized by the appearance of the original Benjamin Franklin armonica then on display in its own showcase in the entry rotunda of the city's famed science museum.".[28]

Notable armonica players[edit]



Related instruments[edit]

An armonica

Another instrument that is also played with wet fingers is the hydraulophone. The hydraulophone sounds similar to a glass armonica but has a darker, heavier sound, that extends down into the subsonic range. The technique for playing hydraulophone is similar to that used for playing armonica.

In popular culture[edit]

In music[edit]

  • Gaetano Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor had its famous Mad Scene written for glass harmonica among other instruments to accompany the voice, although it is often performed with a flutes alone instead for lack of musicians able to play it. Some performances however do employ versions the instrument, such as the Metropolitan Opera production of 2009 with Anna Netrebko in the title role, which is preserved on DVD, featuring glass harmonica soloist Cecilia Brauer, and in a Met Live theatrical broadcast with Natalie Dessay in the role and Dennis James performing the complete, now fully restored armonica part on a historically based armonica.[citation needed]
  • Björk's song "All Neon Like", from her 1997 album, Homogenic prominently features a glass harmonica played by Alasdair Malloy throughout the song. Alasdair Malloy also featured on Björk's"Unplugged" set for MTV.[citation needed]
  • Dennis James played glass armonica as backing to the song and for solo interlude in After The Gold Rush on the 1999 album Trio II by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.[37]
  • The intro of the Aerosmith song, "Janie's Got a Gun," has an eerie glass harmonica feature.[citation needed]

In television[edit]

  • An armonica is featured in the sixth episode of the anime Black Butler II, where a maid plays the instrument at a costume ball and its sound hypnotizes all human listeners into becoming a mindless, attacking mob. This is a direct reference to the belief that its sound could disturb the minds of those who heard it. Sebastian even explains this to the other characters after the instrument is destroyed.[citation needed]
  • An armonica appears briefly in a flashback to the American Revolution in episode 8 of Sleepy Hollow season 1.[citation needed]

In film[edit]

In literature[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "harmonica". Online Etymology Dictionary.  Harper, Douglas. "harmonic". Online Etymology Dictionary. 
  2. ^ ἁρμονία. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  3. ^ Bloch, Thomas. "". Archived from the original on April 5, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  4. ^ a b c d Brands, H. W. (2000) "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" First Anchor Books Edition, March 2002 ISBN 0-385-49540-4
  5. ^ The free reed wind instrument called the harmonica was not invented until 1821, sixty years later.
  6. ^ Ian Crofton (2006) "Brewer's Cabinet of Curiosities," ISBN 0-304-36801-6
  7. ^ As quoted from the 1970 edition of the Companion by a webpage
  8. ^ "Museums celebrate spring" (French)
  9. ^ Downloadable Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Adam Hart Davis on the Angelic Organ of Evil
  10. ^ The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III: London, 1757–1775 – Faults in Songs
  11. ^ Zeitler, William. "The Music and the Magic of the Glass Armonica". Archived from the original (– SCHOLAR SEARCH) on February 10, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  12. ^ See, which includes a video demonstration.
  13. ^ a b The Bakken. "Glass Armonica". Archived from the original on April 5, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  14. ^ The Franklin Institute – Exhibit – Franklin... He's Electric
  15. ^ Zeitler, William. "Census". The Glass Armonica. William Zeitler. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  16. ^ "Musical glasses (armonica)". Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  17. ^ Goyette, Rich. "Historic Glass Armonica - MFA collection". Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  18. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (October 5, 2007). "Resonance Is a Glass Act for a Heroine on the Edge". The New York Times. 
  19. ^ Cope, Kevin L. (30 September 2004). 1650–1850: ideas, aesthetics, and inquiries in the early modern era. AMS Press. p. 149. ISBN 978-0-404-64410-9. Retrieved 5 April 2011. 
  20. ^ Bossler, Heinrich (1809-05-10). Marianne Kirchgessner obituary. Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 10 May 1809. Obituary written by Marianne Kirchgessner's manager Heinrich Bossler.
  21. ^ Glass harmonica at Finkenbeiner
  22. ^ See Finger, Stanley (2006); Doctor Franklin's Medicine; U of Pennsylvania Press; Philadelphia; ISBN 0-8122-3913-X. Chapter 11, "The Perils of Lead" (p. 181–198) discusses the pervasiveness of lead poisoning in Franklin's day and Franklin's own leadership in combating it.
  23. ^ Dr Nicky Gibbon, Sheffield Hallam University, on BBC Radio 4 – Angelic Organ of Evil
  24. ^ Rothstein, Edward (January 15, 1984). "Playing on Glass". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  25. ^ "Glass Harmonicas". G. Finkenbeiner Inc. G. Finkenbeiner Inc. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  26. ^ Wald, Elijah. "Music of the Spheres: The Glass Harmonica". Elijah Wald – Writer, Musician. Retrieved 2014-07-03. 
  27. ^ a b c Sony Classical Music. "Cristal – Glass Music Through the Ages"
  28. ^ a b "Dennis James interview" interviewed by Rich Bailey January, 2002
  29. ^ "History of the Armonica, Ben Franklin and Glass Armonica". Retrieved 2013-02-21. 
  30. ^ "Bill Hayes (2) Discography at Discogs". Retrieved 2014-02-12. 
  31. ^ Glassmusic with verrophone and glassharp
  32. ^ The Glassharmonica made by Sascha Reckert. Retrieved from
  33. ^ "glass harmonica". Alasdair Malloy. 2012-07-10. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  34. ^ Retrieved from
  35. ^ Website for Dean Shostak's Crystal Concert, regular performances take place at Colonial Williamsburg, VA USA
  36. ^ /Article on the work of Ed Stander, from an online publication based in Albany, NY USA
  37. ^ "Trio II CD Album". 
  38. ^ "Monsters from the Id - "The Kobayashi Maru has set sail for the promised land."". Retrieved April 18, 2012. 
  39. ^ Mitch Cullin (2005). A slight trick of the mind. Nan A. Talese / Doubleday. pp. 18–52, 91–108, 156–175, 245–253. Mr Sherlock Holmes presents an unpublished essay on his encounter with a woman who played and listened to the glass armonica, 'The glass armonicist'. 253pp In the book, 


Further reading[edit]

History of the Glass Armonica
  • Zeitler, W. The Glass Armonica—the Music and the Madness (2013) A history of glass music from the Kama Sutra to modern times, including the glass armonica (also known as the glass harmonica), the musical glasses and the glass harp. 342 pages, 45 illustrations, 27 page bibliography. ISBN 978-1-940630-00-7
Instruction books
  • Bartl. About the Keyed Armonica.
  • Ford, Anne (1761). Instructions for playing on the music glasses (Method). London. "A pdf copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on February 26, 2007. Retrieved January 20, 2007. 
  • Franklin, J. E. Introduction to the Knowledge of the Seraphim or Musical Glasses.
  • Hopkinson-Smith, Francis (1825). Tutor for the Grand Harmonicon. Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Ironmonger, David. Instructions for the Double and Single Harmonicon Glasses.
  • Muller, Johann Christian (aka John Christopher Moller). Anleitung zum Selbstunterricht auf der Harmonika.
  • Roellig, Leopold. Uber die Harmonika / Uber die Orphika.
  • Smith, James. Tutor for the Musical Glasses.
  • Wunsch, J. D. Practische – Schule fur die lange Harmonika.

External links[edit]