How does it work? Franklin’s design called for 37 different-sized glass bowls to be threaded on to an iron spindle, which is rotated using a foot pedal, like a spinning wheel. Lightly touching the rims of the bowls with fingertips that have been dabbed in water and chalk makes the spinning bowls “sing”. The bowls were colour-coded to correspond to pitch – purple for B, orange for D, etc.
Five facts and things
The first musician credited with playing glasses as an instrument is Irishman Richard Puckeridge, who wowed Georgian London with his performances of wine goblets filled with water. The amount of water in the goblet determines the pitch of the note – produced by running a fingertip around the lip of the glass.
This glass harmonica. It doesn’t look much like a harmonica. Well, “glass harmonica” is a catch-all term for any instrument involving the rubbing of glass, with the “harmonica” part derived from the Italian word for harmony. Armonica de verre, glasharmonika and – fabulously – hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica, are the French, German and Greek handles, respectively.
Don’t play the glass harmonica, it will drive you mad! That’s what folks believed in the 18th century, causing the armonica to fall almost completely out of favour as a concert instrument. “The armonica excessively stimulates the nerves,” claimed German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz, “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 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.”
More scientific musicologists, however, think that the explanation for the armonica’s maddening appeal lies in the disorienting nature of the tones produced. Sounds above 4,000 hertz apparently can be “triangulated”, or located in space, by our ears, whereas our brains are unable to work out whether sounds below 1000 hertz are coming from the left or right. The armonica typically spins out tones that fall between 1000 and 4000 hertz, tricking our brains into never being quite sure where or what the sound is coming from.
Although the instrument isn’t depicted literally, it is the subject of the astounding surrealist animation, The Glass Harmonica, by Russian filmmaker Andrei Khrjanovsky. Originally released in 1968, but quickly banned by the state, The Glass Harmonica uses the creation of a celestial instrument as an allegory for how capital will always corrupt creativity and the populace, even within a communist state.