Glass Harmonica
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Basic Information

Benjamin Franklin is best known for printing witty proverbs, enjoying the company of French demimondaine, and performing dangerous experiments with electricity; but he also made an interesting contribution to the world of music: the Armonica or Glass Harmonica.

Franklin's Armonica was based on the well-known principle that if one runs a moistened finger along the rim of a wine glass, the glass produces a ringing tone. In the 18th Century, some musicians had developed the idea of the "Glass Harp" by arranging a set of wine glasses on a table, each containing a different amount of water so as to tune the glass to a different note. Franklin took that idea and turned it into a gadget.

He had a series of glass bowls of descending size made and set them all on a central shaft, each nested in the other. A foot tredal would rotate the axis and the bowls, permitting the musician to easily touch the right bowl to produce the desired tone. The armonica produced a haunting, etherial sound.

Mozart, Beethoven and many other composers of the era wrote music for the glass harmonica. In the mid-1800s, though, the instrument fell out of fashion; largely because it's delecate tone was better suited to small chamber perfomances than to the large, orchestral works that began to predominate in the 19th Century. The instrument was re-discovered a century later when modern microphones and recording equipment could better enhance the armonica's unique sound.

There were some rumors, however, that the armonica was actually dangerous. The claims that performers could get poisoned by running their fingers along the leaded glass bowels were overstated; but the more interesting rumors claimed that the armonica's weird vibrations could actually drive the performer and it's listeners mad. A German musicologist claimed that the sounds of the armonica could trigger bouts of melancholy and depression.

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Game and Story Use

  • The etherial sound of the Glass Harmonica is really amazing. It could set an eerie mood, if you like to play background music in your campaigns.
  • An antique 18th-Century armonica might make a good MacGuffin
  • Is there something weird and eldritch about the haunting tones of the armonica?
    • Tunes Man Was Not Meant to Know…
    • Could the glass armonica be a memetic entity? Technically inclined musicians listening to the armonica find themselves designing similar instruments with similar effects; the melancholy is how people with no such skill react to an urge they can't process.
      • Or, if you want to make Ben Franklin a mad scientist, he deliberately created those effects and had plans for instruments that induce other emotions or madnesses.
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