What's that Sound? :: Armonica

Today in What's that Sound? we're discussing a Benjamin Franklin original production; the armonica. The armonica, also known as the glass harmonica, was Franklin's reimagining of the singing water glasses.

Ben had seen a performance with musical water glasses while living in England and really enjoyed the sound, but thought the set up and tuning of the glasses seemed like a lot of work. Being a man who always liked making life a little easier, he moved some parts around and made a new instrument that improved upon the original concept. With the armonica, the glasses were always in place and perfectly tuned; and now you could even play up to ten glasses at a time. Booyah!

An armonica consists of 37 glass bowls that are aligned horizontally on a spindle and gradually decrease in size. The spindle is turned using a foot pedal. The musician wets his or her fingers in a bowl of water and touches the rims of the spinning glasses to play the notes.

The quality of the sound is thought to be slightly disorienting because of the way humans perceive and locate sound. There are certain sound ranges that make it difficult for our brains to figure out what is causing a noise or locate where the noise is coming from. An armonica's sound range (1-4 kHz) just happens to fall in this "Huh? What? I don't get it?!" range.

But is it really that bad? Franklin didn't think so. He described the armonica's sound as "incomparably sweet beyond those of any other..." See if you agree with his sentiment by watching this vid of a Benjamin Franklin imposter playing Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy on his armonica:

The armonica's popularity began waning by the end of the 18th century. Perhaps it was the rumors surrounding the instrument that brought about its demise. Some claimed that armonica musicians were driven mad by the sound and "excessive nerve stimulation" from playing. More modern interpretations of the rumor believe it was lead poisoning from the lead glass used to make the spinning bowls. But that's all conjecture and there's no real evidence that any of it is true. It's possible that, as with any musical fad, tastes simply changed.

Nowadays, the armonica, sans lead, makes rare appearances in concert music. Only a handful of master players continue to perform the instrument, including fake Ben Franklin seen above, aka William Zeitler.

So what's that sound? Now you know!

What's that Sound? :: Theremin

I'm starting a new series called What's that Sound? about obscure and lesser-known musical instruments. Sure, there's your average piano or trumpet, but what other musical voices are out there? 

First up, we have the otherworldly electric theremin.

The theremin was developed in the 20's by Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor. Theremin was actually trying to build a proximity sensor for the Russian government but ended up creating what is considered one of the first electronic musical instruments.

To play, the performer moves their hands in proximity to the two metal antennas, never touching. The horizontal antenna controls volume, while the vertical controls pitch. The hands are interacting and disrupting electromagnetic fields produced by a radio frequency oscillator for each antenna. (You can read more specifics about that here.)

It's a tricky instrument to play with few who are considered "masters." One of the most renowned theremin players is Clara Rockmore, who can be heard here playing La Vie en Rose like a boss.

Because of its ghostly warble, the theremin is usually associated with horror films, but it finds its way into popular music pretty often. You've definitely heard it before. Perhaps you'll recognize this song:

So what's that sound? Now you know!