Ode to a ghostly tune: the science and musicality of glass

There are, indeed, moments in time when the heavens touch the earth, and the results are truly awesome: Natural glass, formed when sandy soil is melted by lightning and then quickly cooled, is wild in texture, color and shape, an eerie reflection of the stormy sky in which it was born.

Of course, there are simpler ways to make glass than to wait for perfect cosmic conditions. For thousands of years, humans have been making glass, which can be blown and molded to create myriad shapes. The MIT Glass Lab is responsible for an impressive number of these fantastical glass creations that push the limits of what we can create in this temperamental and delicate medium. At the MIT 150 exhibit at the MIT Museum, there are examples of glass formed into everything from pumpkins to abstract vases to musical instruments.

Though each of these sculptures has its own virtues, the glass oboe in particular highlights part of what makes glass so special. Even in its hardened state, glass lacks the crystallized structure of a solid material. It continues to flow like a liquid. Both dense and flexible, glass vibrates more easily than such materials as wood and metal. An oboe re-imagined in glass creates beautiful sounds that are almost impossibly clear in tone. But the resonant power of glass is perhaps nowhere better represented than in what Ben Franklin once called his most satisfying invention: the glass armonica.

Invented in 1761, the glass armonica consists of stacked and tuned globes of glass on a spindle. A musician pumps with her foot to make the glass spin and touches wet fingers to the glass to produce notes. The instrument operates on the same principles that make crystal wine glasses sing. A wet finger sliding along the rim of a glass—or a globe on the armonica—creates just enough friction to vibrate the glass. The vibrations are then transmitted to the air, where they create sound. Variations in the size of the glass or the amount of water inside change the frequency in the vibration, producing different notes.

Mozart was so deeply captivated by Franklin’s glass armonica that he composed two pieces specifically for it. Even the briefest listen to an adagio performed on glass is enough to understand why. The sound is spine-tingling. A perfect reflection of its origins, glass music is hauntingly ethereal, angelic, and unnerving—so artfully suspended in the air that it feels as though it is coming from everywhere and nowhere at once.

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