Blogging about the Glass Armonica

Our friend Melissa Swingle (front woman with Trailer Bride and The Moaners) was over the other evening for some eatin’ and a-pickin.’ Melissa brought her musical saw, which in her extremely capable hands produces beautiful, ethereal sounds. (If you do not have perfect pitch or damn close to it, the musical saw is probably not your instrument.)

Given that we were inaugurating a new table built on the premises and that some of the guests prefer wine with dinner, we spared no expense and bought a package of four wine glasses at Wal-Mart for less than ten dollars. During the evening, we discovered the glasses each produced a note somewhere between G and G# (either a sharpish G or a flattish G#) when stroked around their lip. It says something good about the manufacturer’s quality control when all four glasses in the el-cheapo pack resonate at the same frequency.

One thing leads to another, and before you knew it we were talking about the glass armonica, which operates on the same principle. It’s also known as a “bowl organ,” and was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin in 1761. An earlier instrument known as the “glass harp” consisted essentially of an arrangement of goblets filled with liquid at varying levels. Empty goblet = lowest note, most filled goblet = highest note, with different tones in between. The glass armonica comparatively automated the operation. Glass disks (or “bowls”) of decreasing diameters are mounted on a spinning shaft. The shaft spins by means of a foot treadle, similar to a foot-operated spinning wheel, sewing machine or lathe. You wet your fingers and apply them to the spinning disks, and the next thing you know, you’re making music. The larger the bowl, the lower the frequency it generates.

This is what a glass armonica looks like:


Here’s a short video of a dude playing some Mozart on a glass armonica.

This isn’t just purely nerdism for its own sake. Granted, it is unlikely you will have groupies throwing themselves at you because of your virtuosity on the glass armonica. Then again, Ben Franklin had a rep as quite the ladies’ man, so who are we to conjecture?

Think about all of the objects we might touch or pick up during the course of a day that make music by accident. And all the things and creatures that make music whether we’re involved or not. Music is all around us, all the time. We need only listen.

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