Like you needed more reasons to love this guy.
By Tom Rizzuto
The Founding Fathers loved music. This shouldn't be that surprising. Everybody loves music. They attended concerts, sang drinking songs, and a bunch of them even played instruments. However, one of these guys took his musical activities further than the rest.
You can be forgiven if you never learned the extent of Ben Franklin's musical resume. After all, Franklin did a lot of stuff. After your history teachers got through the printing, writing, ambassadorship, inventing, the whole kite situation and The Revolutionary War, they probably didn't have much time for anything else. If you're lucky, you might have heard something about a "Glass Harmonica" but that was probably the extent of it.
The truth is that Franklin was, by far, America's most musical Founding Father and we have the evidence to prove it!
1. The Glass Harmonica
This one had to go first. The Glass Harmonica is without a doubt the most well known of Franklin's forays into the musical world. He invented the instrument to mimic the sounds of wet fingers being dragged across crystal wine glasses. Franklin's design took that sound, a common type of street performance and parlor trick in Franklin's time, and made it practical for the professional musician. By arranging a set of crystal bowls, each tuned to a specific pitch on a rotating cylinder, Franklin gave the player greater control over the sound and the ability to play more complex harmonies. The Glass Harmonica caught on and over 100 composers including Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for it. Marie Antoinette even took lessons on how to play it. Soon, however, the instrument's rise to prominence was halted by strange rumors that its sound could drive people to go insane and it was even banned in parts of Germany as a public health risk. As ridiculous as it sounds, some historians believe there may be some truth to those accusations, though the sound wasn't the issue. Apparently, a number of glass harmonicas produced in Europe were manufactured with an unsafe level of lead that may have slowly poisoned the players who handled them.
2. Franklin the Guitarist
It's pretty well known that Franklin played not only the guitar but the violin and harp, as well. However, the guitar is the only instrument that we have a record of Franklin ever earning a living on. During his days as a Philadelphia bachelor, Franklin worked as a guitar teacher, specializing in teaching the city's eligible young women. That's right America. Not even Ben Franklin was above using the guitar to meet girls.
3. Franklin the Composer?
This one is a little controversial. We know that Franklin dabbled in song writing. He wrote a few drinking songs and presumably would go around performing them on his guitar in the many taverns he came across in his travels. However, there's some evidence that while he was on one of his trips to France, Franklin composed an interesting and very unusual string quartet. The quartet has five movements and calls for three violins and a cello. A traditional string quartet would have two violins, a cello and a viola. They also usually had only four movements. However, that's by far not the strangest thing about this particular piece of music. The piece calls for the retuning of the instruments so that all sixteen strings involved were tuned to a different pitch. This was done so that as many notes as possible could be played without ever having to put a finger on the fingerboard.
Franklin never officially claimed to have written the piece, but the sheer weirdness of it would certainly fit his sense of humor and his knack for innovation. Also, the oldest known copy of the work names him as the composer and no composer has ever stepped forward to take credit for it. However, that copy is not written in Franklin's handwriting, so until new evidence is found, it's anybody's guess.
Tom Rizzuto is a freelance musician and writer working in New York. He has also taught guitar and music history at several local universities. His middle name is Benjamin.
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