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Thomas Bloch and his glass harmonica

The glass harmonica, also known as the glass armonica, bowl organ, hydrocrystalophone, or simply the armonica (derived from "harmonia", the Greek word for harmony), 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.

The Irish musician Richard Puckeridge is typically credited as the first to play an instrument composed of glass vessels by rubbing his fingers around the rims.[1] Beginning in the 1740s, he performed in London on a set of upright goblets filled with varying amounts of water. During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention playing a similar instrument in England.



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

The word "glass harmonica" (also glassharmonica, glass armonica, 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".[2] 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 (daktyl) for "finger", psych- for "soul")[3] 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 The Times wrote to that paper in 1932 to say that in his youth he had heard a performance the advertisement of which styled the instrument the Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica."[4] It is claimed that the Museum of Music in Paris displays a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica.[5]

Franklin's armonica

An armonica.

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 1758.[6] Franklin, who called his invention the "armonica" after the Italian word for harmony, worked with London glassblower Charles James to build one, and it had its world premiere in early 1762, played by Marianne Davies.

A modern glass armonica built using Benjamin Franklin's design.

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 moistened fingers. Rims were painted different colors according to the pitch of the note. A's were dark blue, B's purple, C's red, D's orange, E's yellow, F's green, G's blue, and accidentals white.[7] 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 helped produce a clear tone in the same way rosin is applied to the bows of string instruments.

Some attempted improvements on the armonica included adding keyboards, placing pads between the bowls to reduce vibration,[8] and using violin bows. These variations never caught on because they did not sound as pleasant.

Another supposed improvement 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.[9] 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, Minnesota and put on display.[10] 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.[10] 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 on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is also the home of the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.[11]


Mozart, Hasse, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, Beethoven, Donizetti, Richard Strauss, and more than 100 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 composers write again for it (solo, chamber music, opera, electronic music, popular music): Jan Erik Mikalsen, Regis Campo, Etienne Rolin, Philippe Sarde, Damon Albarn, Tom Waits, Michel Redolfi, Cyril Morin, Stefano Giannotti, Thomas Bloch, Guillaume Connesson...

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European monarchs indulged in it, and even Marie Antoinette had taken lessons on it as a child from Marianne Davies. One of the best known myths about the instrument involves the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the ballet The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky's first draft called for glass harmonica - which used the same name but was actually a kind of glass xylophone. He changed it to the newly-invented celesta (by Mustel, Paris) before the work's premiere performance in 1892.[12] Saint-Saëns also used this percussive instrument in his "Carnaval des animaux" (in movements 7 and 14).

Purported dangers

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 fear from playing the glass harmonica was noted by a German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung:

"The armonica 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 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."[citation needed]

Marianne Kirchgessner was an armonica player; she died at the age of 39 of pneumonia or an illness much like it.[13] However, others, including Franklin, lived long lives. By 1820 the glass armonica had disappeared from 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. The harpsichord disappeared at about the same time — perhaps for the same reason.[citation needed]

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, many modern versions, such as those made by Finkenbeiner, are made from pure silica glass.[14] It is known that 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, lead oxide was used as a preservative in food and beverages, food was cooked in tin/lead pots which gave off lead fumes—the tin protected the food, and acidic beverages were commonly drunk from lead pewter vessels. Even if armonica players of Franklin's day somehow received trace amounts of lead from their instruments, that would likely have been dwarfed by the lead they were receiving from other sources.[15]

Perception of the armonica sound

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 from 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).[16]

Modern revival

Music for glass harmonica and glass harp was all-but-unknown from 1820 until the 1930s, when German virtuoso Bruno Hoffmann began reanimating interest in the glass harp repertoire with his stunning performances. Playing a standard "glass harp" (with real wine glasses in a box), he mastered almost all of the literature written for the instrument, and commissioned contemporary composers to write new pieces for it.

Franklin's glass armonica was re-invented 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 with gold bands. Those with gold bands indicate the equivalent of the black keys on the piano. Finkenbeiner Inc., of Waltham, Massachusetts, continues to produce these instruments commercially.

French instrument makers and artists Bernard and Francois Baschet invented a variation of the glass harmonica in 1952, the crystal organ or Cristal baschet, which consists of 52 chromatically-tuned glass rods that are rubbed with wet fingers. The main difference with the glass harmonica is that the rods, set horizontally, are attached to a heavy metal block to which the vibration is passed through a metal stem. The crystal organ is a fully acoustic instrument, and amplification is obtained using fiberglass cones fixed on wood and by a tall cut out metal part in the shape of a flame. Metallic rods resembling cat whiskers are placed under the instrument to increase the sound power of high-pitched sounds.

Notable armonica players




Related instruments

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, with sonic energy that extends down into the subsonic range. The technique for playing hydraulohone is similar to that used for playing armonica.

Popular culture references

Literary references

  • In his novel Mason & Dixon Thomas Pynchon fictionally describes Franklin's armonica: "If Chimes could whisper, if Melodies could pass away, and their souls wander the Earth... if Ghosts danced at Ghost Ridottoes, 'twould require such Musick, Sentiment ever held back, ever at the edge of breaking forth, in Fragments, as Glass breaks."
  • In the manga and anime D.N.Angel, a living painting of a unicorn would constantly kidnap little girls to be playmates of the girl inside of the artwork. Whenever it arrived, the sound of a glass harmonica playing would be heard.
  • In Bruce Sterling's short story "We See Things Differently" (published in Semiotext(e) SF, 1989, and collected in his own collection, Globalhead, as well as The Norton Book of Science Fiction), the near-future rock musician/insurrectionary Tom Boston plays it in concert: "...legend said that its players went mad, their nerves shredded by its clarity of sound. It was a legend Boston was careful to exploit. He played the machine sparingly, with the air of a magician, of a Solomon unbottling demons. I was glad of his spare use, for its sound was so beautiful that it stung the brain."
  • The novel The Glass Harmonica by Louise Marley is speculative/historical fiction focusing on the glass harmonica. It describes Benjamin Franklin's invention of the armonica, the public debut of the armonica as played by Marianne Davies, and exposure of a young Mozart to the instrument. A future story arc describes the modern revival of the instrument and the superstitions regarding its potential effects on the nerves..
  • In Guardians of the Gates of Madness,[23] the first story in E. E. Nalley's[24] Care Givers Company Tales, a transgender fiction shared universe, Persephone Chartrand plays the glass armonica. It is described as " instrument invented by an American named Ben Franklin." In The Best and the Brightest[25] (also set in the Care Givers universe) by Maggie Finson, we learn that Persephone's introduction to the instrument was as a child when her great grandmother played it. When she engages to study it as an adult, her instructor turns out to be one of her great grandmother's students.
  • In Mitch Cullin’s novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, Sherlock Holmes investigates the case of a grief-stricken woman’s fascination with the music of the glass armonica.

See also



  1. ^ Bloch, Thomas,,, retrieved 2007-05-22 
  2. ^ The free reed wind instrument called the harmonica was not invented until 1821, sixty years later.
  3. ^ Ian Crofton (2006) "Brewer's Cabinet of Curiosities", ISBN 0304368016
  4. ^ As quoted from the 1970 edition of the Companion by a webpage
  5. ^ "Museums celebrate spring" (French)
  6. ^ Downloadable Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Adam Hart Davis on the Angelic Organ of Evil
  7. ^ The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume III: London, 1757 - 1775 - Faults in Songs
  8. ^ Zeitler, William ( – Scholar search), The Music and the Magic of the Glass Armonica,, retrieved 2007-05-22 
  9. ^ See which includes a video demonstration.
  10. ^ a b The Bakken, Glass Armonica,, retrieved 2007-05-22 
  11. ^ The Franklin Institute - Exhibit - Franklin... He's Electric
  12. ^ Sterki, P. (2000); Klingende Gläser; Peter Lang; NY; ISBN 3906764605, p. 97
  13. ^ Bossler, Heinrich (1809-05-10). Marianne Kirchgessner obituary. Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, 10 May 1809. Obituary written by Marianne Kirchgessner's manager Heinrich Bossler.
  14. ^ Glass harmonica at Finkenbeiner
  15. ^ See Finger, Stanley (2006); Doctor Franklin's Medicine; U of Pennsylvania Press; Philadelphia; ISBN 081223913X. 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.
  16. ^ Dr Nicky Gibbon, Sheffield Hallam University, on BBC Radio 4 - Angelic Organ of Evil
  17. ^ Photograph of Armonica and Cecilia Gniewek Brauer at Gigmasters
  18. ^ Glassmusic with verrophone and glassharp
  19. ^ The Glassharmonica made by Sascha Reckert. Retrieved from
  20. ^ Retrieved from
  21. ^ Website for Dean Shostak's Crystal Concert, regular performances take place at Colonial Williamsburg, VA USA
  22. ^ Retrieved from
  23. ^ Guardians of the Gates of Madness at Sapphire's Place
    Guardians of the Gates of Madness at The Crystal Hall library
  24. ^ E. E. Nalley's page at Sapphire's Place
  25. ^ The Best and the Brightest at Sapphire's Place
    The Best and the Brightest at The Crystal Hall library


Instruction books

  • Bartl. About the Keyed Armonica.
  • Ford, Anne (1761). Instructions for playing on the music glasses (Method). London. "A pdf copy" (PDF). 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

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