Benjamin Franklin and the most dangerous musical instrument in history

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin attended a concert in London and heard a musician play a set of wine glasses tuned to water. A soft tone invaded the room, leaving Franklin delighted and a little dismayed. The instrument sounded beautiful but looked unwieldy. One wrong move and all the glasses would fall off. Inspired to improve design, Franklin invented an alternative: a stem of rotating glass bowls called “glass armonica”. The instrument would sweep Europe by assault; Mozart even composed music for that.

Then he started killing people.

In any case, that’s what the doctors said. Decades earlier, anatomists had discovered how auditory nerves worked, and they began to warn that too much music– like too much coffee or tea – can affect the nerves, causing headaches, fainting and others medical problems.

These fears were not entirely new. Centuries earlier, Plato had suggested banning certain musical modes, arguing that “new fashions in music … [were] endangering the whole fabric of society. “The Roman rhetorician Quintilian once argued that the timbre of certain instruments could “emasculate the soul with all its vigor”, driving men mad. With the arrival of the 19th century, rickety science helped this musical fear campaign become mainstream – music was blamed for hysteria, premature menstruation, homosexuality, and even death. (In 1837 the controversial Satirist penny magazine would report that a 28-year-old woman died from listening to too much music.)

During this burgeoning period of anti-music mania, no instrument would be as dreaded as Franklin’s armonica. Critics have said it overstimulates the brain; the performers blamed him for the dizziness, hallucinations and paralysis. In 1799, Doctor Anthony Willich argued that the instrument deserved condemnation, saying that it caused “a great degree of nervous weakness.” In 1808, people attributed the death of harmonica virtuoso Marianne Kirchgessner to the strange tones of the instrument. Some psychiatrists have gone so far as to say that it leads listeners to suicide.

To say the least, the assault was a public relations nightmare. Within decades, the dreaded instrument was relegated to the great great concert hall in the sky.

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