Friday, July 25, 2014

Making Ben Franklin's Glass Armonica

Ben Franklin was the most amazing man, wasn't he? We spent a couple days just learning about him (and we'd already read quite a bit about him during our Electricity Unit, but there was so much more to learn!) and we read aloud the book Ben and Me, which I've always liked. For our activity, we re-created a simple version of the musical instrument he invented, the Glass Armonica.

You can actually hear people playing the Glass Armonica today---there are some instruments still around---and there is quite a bit of classical music written for it. Both Mozart and Beethoven, I believe, wrote music for glass armonica. It has an unearthly, ethereal sound, very beautiful. Here is a video of someone playing Tchaikovsky (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy---which was really written for celeste, but they sound quite similar) on a glass armonica---you can see what it looks like and how the glasses spin around as he plays. Really cool.

Here's another video we liked, this one showing a more makeshift instrument like ours. It's pretty amazing how much harmony he is able to play by using both hands.

And this video Sam sent me of a guy playing "La Campanella" is even more amazing!

Of course we've tried making sounds with our water glasses before, but this was a lot more controlled and after fine-tuning the size of the glasses and the amount of water so we had a well-pitched scale, we worked for a long time, trying to get a consistent touch and a clear sound. It was really hard at first, but after some experimentation it became easier. There is a certain amount of pressure needed before the notes will sound. We also started to notice how the water in the glass really vibrated in a noticeable way as you got closer to the exact pitch. You could actually see the sound waves traveling through the water. It was amazing to watch, and I couldn't really get a good picture (too much motion from the vibration), but from the side view you can kind of see it:
This glass is at rest, with no note being played
As the pitch sounds, these evenly spaced waves appear along the water's edge at the rim of the glass. So cool!

Seb and I really loved doing this, and we kept at it for long enough that we started to actually get the hang of it. (Well, we're not quite ready to be street-performers yet, but at least more than half of our attempted notes were sounding! :)) Here are a couple videos of our efforts:
Seb plays "Pop goes the weasel"

I attempt harmony on "I am a child of God"

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