Glass Harmonica Linked To Insanity

The glass harmonica is an instrument that enjoyed a spell of popularity during the 18th century. It is a form of idiophone, but this particular instrument fell from fashion following claims that it induced insanity in both performers and audiences…

Introducing The Glass Harmonica

The principle of the glass harmonica is the same as how one plays wine glasses by rubbing the rim (which may be facilitated by using a suitable liquid lubricant such as water). Such glasses can also produce varying tones as the volume of water contained within is altered.

Generally speaking, any instrument which produces sound through its own vibration (without the use of tautened strings or membranes) is known as an idiophone. Such instruments which are played by applying friction are called, appropriately enough, friction idiophones.

In a further bound of nomenclature, the glass harmonica may also be referred to as a crystallophone because its vibrating body is composed of glass.

Safe From Harmonica

Olde Glass harmonica

The glass harmonica largely disappeared from public performances by the 1820s, amidst claims that the instrument provoked illness, distress and even insanity in those who played or heard it.

There is little evidence that this is in fact the case, and it is probable that the instrument simply was not loud enough for the increasingly large music venues being constructed at this time.

However, some theorists argue that because the instrument’s frequency range was approximately 1kHz to 4kHz, the human auditory mechanism has difficulty pinpointing spatial cues regarding the source of the notes, which could create a disorientating effect.

It is true that humans cannot easily identify the source of low frequency signals – which is why it doesn’t really matter where you place your subwoofer in your home theatre – but this is unlikely to induce discomfort unless you’re listening to some really loud dub music.

But why not decide for yourself if the glasses lead to madness (pun intended – however, it’s unlikely that lead in 18th century glass was present in sufficient quantities to cause dementia). Here’s a video of a glass harmonica performance…if you dare.


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