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Musical Innovations – Six Unique Instruments

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Add These Sounds to Your Earbox

An assortment of electronic and acoustic instruments
An assortment of electronic and acoustic instruments

In previous posts, we have touched on the instruments of the conventional Western orchestra, some instruments from around the world, and some electronic instruments as well. In this post, we are going to meet just a few of some of the lesser known instruments that you might have heard, but you might not have known what you were hearing. Whether you are a composer, producer, musician, singer, or just an admirer and listener, add these new sonic possibilities to your "earbox" and see where your musical imagination takes you!

The Glass Armonica


Franklin Glass Armonica
Franklin Glass Armonica

The Glass Armonica, also called the Glass Harmonica or Glass Harmonium, was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in 1761. However, The idea for the a crystallophone or musical glass predates him. The idea that running a wet finger around a crystal goblet to produce a sound has been known since the Renaissance. In fact, one of the first scientists to write about that phenomenon was Galileo. Irish musician Richard Pockridge (or Pockrich) is credited with first using a set of water-tuned glasses into an instrument called the Musical Glasses. Pockridge performed around London in the 1740s. Unfortunately, both him and his instrument were caught in a fire which killed him and destroyed his instrument. Baroque operatic composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) performed a concerto on a set of musical glasses.

In 1761, Franklin was in London, representing the Pennsylvania Legislature to Parliament. Asa lover of music and an amateur musician and composer, he would often attend concerts. One such concerts Franklin attended featured Edmund Deleval playing set of a musical glasses, that was patterned after Pockridge's instrument. Franklin was so taken with the ethereal sound of the glasses that he was inspired to create his own mechanical version of the instrument.

Working with a glassblower in London, Franklin made 37 glass bowls, tuned to specific pitches by their varying size, and fitted one inside of the next with cork. Each bowl was made with the correct size and thickness to give the desired pitch without needing to be filled with water. Franklin painted the bowls so that they were color-coded. A was indigo, B violet, C red, D orange, E yellow, F green, G blue, and the accidentals were marked in white. A hole was put through the center of the glass bowls, and an iron rod ran through the holes which was attached to a wheel, that was spun via foot pedal. In place of water-filled glass, the musician's used fingers lightly wet from water touched to the edge of the spinning glasses produced sound.

The Glass Armonica premiered in early 1762 with the name "glassychord", played by Londoner Marianne Davies. Franklin later built a second instrument with which Davies toured Europe while Franklin returned to Philadelphia with his. Mozart was so impressed with the Glass Armonica that he composed for it, including "Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K. 356" (below). Other Classical era composers, also wrote for it and there about 200 pieces written for the instrument that we still have today. Although the instrument lost popularity in the 19th century, French Romantic composer Camille Sant-Saëns (1835-1921), used it to give the water sound to his "Aquarium" from The Carnival of the Animals (below). Franklin's inventiveness should inspire us to create and innovate as well.

"As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others we s