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Musical Glasses

In the library catalog of 1783, Jefferson listed a pamphlet "By Miss Ford, Instruction for Playing on the Musical Glasses;[1] so that any person, who has the least Knowledge of Music, or a good Ear, may be able to perform in a few Days, if not in a few Hours." Although he doesn't seem to have purchased the pamphlet, he showed a great deal of interest in the developing instrument, but left no record of owning a set of musical glasses - also known as a glass harmonica or armonica - or any of the similar instruments.

It was known early in the 18th century that rubbing a moistened finger around the rim of a glass produced musical notes. Varying amounts of liquid, along with the size and the thickness of the glass would determine the pitch. It was first presented in churches in England and Ireland by striking the glasses with sticks, accompanied by violins and basses and was referred to as a Vierillon.[2] Known throughout the 19th century by different names and a variety of configurations, the instrument was most commonly called a Harmonium or Harmonica.

Benjamin Franklin was an early promoter of musical glasses in the United States, having written instructions for the assemblage of such an instrument in 1762. He managed to build one although he kept it a secret from his wife. He finally played it one evening while she was sleeping. She likened the sound to "music of angels."[3] Franklin also had an instrument similar to a dulcimer with glass bars and three octaves that seemed to interest Jefferson.

Robert Carter of Nomini Hall owned one of the styles of musical glasses that Franklin invented and it was most likely the only set in Williamsburg. In his Account Book, on May 16, 1772, Jefferson "pd. Hearing musical glasses 2/6," most likely played by Peter Pelham, organist at Bruton Parish Church.

Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and gentleman musician, wrote to Jefferson that he was trying to perfect a method of playing the Armonica or Musical Glasses with "keys like an organ. I am now forward in ths Scheme and have little doubt of Success. It has been attempted in vain in France and England."[4] Jefferson responded that this would be the "great present which has been made to the musical world this century, not excepting the Piano forte."[5] The closest Hopkinson came in the endeavor was to attach artificial fingers to keys. He also constructed keys with cushioned pads to strike the glasses but there still had to be some sort of applied moisture for the desired notes.

Fifteen years after the Musical Glass concert in Williamsburg, Jefferson, now in Paris, wrote Charles Burney in London, praising the Kirkman Harpsichord. Musical glasses were still on his mind though, commenting, "However imperfect this instrument is for the general masses, yet for those of a certain character it is delicious."[6] Later in the year he wrote to John Trumbull that he would like to know "the price of a good harmonica, the glasses fixed on an axis, to comprehend 6 a plain mahogany case."[7] Trumbull responded that three octaves would be the limit available and such an instrument could be purchased from Longman and Boderip of London for 30 guineas.

Jefferson's last known comments on the Harmonica were addressed to Francis Hopkinson. He wrote of improvements he had seen in the instrument that included revolving glasses, draped with woolen cloth, and dampened with a vinegar-water mixture. It still "receives the touch of fingers. It spares the trouble of perpetually wetting the fingers."[8] Beyond that, it seems that a Harmonica never made its way to the Parlor at Monticello.


  1. This article is based on S. Meyer, Monticello Research Report, November, 2000.
  2. Leonard Lebaree, Papers of Benjamin Franklin, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959-), 10.
  3. Helen Cripe, Thomas Jefferson and Music, (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974), 11.
  4. Lebaree, 10:78.
  5. Cripe, 69.
  6. Jefferson to Burney, February 12, 1787, PTJ, 11:141.
  7. Jefferson to John Trumbull, October 11, 1787, Ibid, 12:235.
  8. Jefferson to Hopkinson, May 8, 1788, Ibid, 13:145.

Further Sources

  • King, A. Hyatt. "The Musical Glasses and Glass Harmonica." Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 72 (1946-7): 97-122.
  • Theobald, Mary Miley. "Crystal Clear: Return of the Glass Armonica." Colonial Williamsburg: The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Winter (1994-5): 34-8.
  • Zeitler, William. "The Glass Armonica: Benjamin Franklin's Magical Musical Invention."


ccampbell's picture
This musical instrument, which uses the same principle as the old finger-around-the-wet-wine glass trick, apparently garnered quite a bit of notoriety in the 18th century. Though several notable composers, Mozart and Beethoven among them, wrote music specifically for it, the instrument fell out of favor relatively quickly as musical tastes changed. There are only a few of them left today, and they are museum pieces. The sound produced by the musical glasses, or glass armonica (from the Italian word "armonia," meaning harmony) has been described as "ethereal" and "inexpressibly grand," but my reaction to it when hearing it played over the listening station in the Museum Shop is that two or three selections in a row are more than enough at one time.
Christy Campbell
ajeffries's picture
When I first read the title of this page I couldn't get the image out of my head of Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality playing water glasses. It turns out, this instrument is actually a set of graduated bowls that spin on their sides. The player dips thier fingertips in water to create the sound. A quick search of online videos gave several examples of performances.


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