One evening in 1761, Benjamin Franklin's wife thought she was hearing angels singing. But it was just Mr. Franklin playing his latest invention, the glass armonica. ("Armonica" means "harmony" in Italian.)
Have you ever tried wetting your finger and running it gently around the rim of a crystal glass? Your finger makes the glass vibrate, creating a beautiful, ethereal sound. Franklin had heard a concert where a man played songs on water-filled wine glasses this way. But the musician could only play two glasses at a time.
Franklin had glass bowls of varying sizes made. The tone the bowl would make depended on the thickness of the glass and the size of the bowl. Thicker glass and bigger bowls created lower tones.
He painted the rim of each bowl a different color to correspond to a note. (The note A was dark blue. B was purple, and so on. A white rim indicated a sharp or a flat.)
A hole was drilled in the bottom of each bowl. The bowls were arranged in musical order and placed on a rod. The rod could be spun using a foot pedal.
As the bowls spun, a musician wet his fingers and touched them to the rims. Now he could play as many notes as he could reach with his fingers. Complex chords were possible.
The glass armonica (sometimes called the glass harmonica) was very popular for about 60 years. Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn all composed music specifically for glass armonica. Well-to-do people, including Marie Antoinette, learned to play it. But the instrument all but disappeared when a (groundless) fear arose that playing it was bad for you.
In 1982, Gerhard Finkenbeiner, a glassblower living near Boston, recreated the glass armonica. As of today, his company has made about 120 of the three-octave instruments.
William Wilde Zeitler is a modern-day glass armonica player. He says the challenge is that "you have to learn how to get the notes to speak immediately." If you've ever run a wet finger around the rim of a goblet, you know that sometimes it takes a moment for the note to sound.
You can make a simple, centuries-old musical instrument using ordinary drinking glasses and water. Line up several glasses, and fill them with varying amounts of water. Tap them gently with a spoon or stick to make a tone. You can "tune" the glasses by adding water or pouring it out. Can you make a scale?
You can visit Zeitler's Web site and hear some glass-armonica music at: www.glassarmonica.com
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