Today, Ben Franklin talks about music. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Franklin was many things: statesman, scientist,
writer, inventor, printer. He also had a quirky
interest in music. He played several instruments,
and he invented one called the glass
armonica. It worked on the same principle
as the rubbed rim of a wine glass.
So my antennae recently went up when our University
acquired a 1769 edition of Franklin's treatise on
electricity. Along with Franklin's foundational
work on electricity are letters on many other
subjects. His brother had sent a ballad that he'd
written. Franklin writes back from England, where
he was serving as a Colonial representative. He
talks about the homespun sentiments of the ballad.
We don't see its text, but Franklin says,
If you had given it to some country girl in
Massachusets [sic], who has never heard any other
than psalm tunes, or [ditties like] Chevy
Chase, but has a naturally good ear, she might
more probably have made a pleasing popular tune for
you, than any of our masters here.
That's a swipe at the great Baroque composers
around him. He doesn't like what they're up to. He
The reigning taste seems to be quite out of
or rather the reverse of nature.
Franklin objects strongly to the way they set words
to music. He encloses an aria from Handel's
oratorio Judas Maccabaeus and uses it to
show how text settings are becoming dysfunctional.
Accents, he says, are often in the wrong
place. He objects to what he calls Drawling
and Stuttering -- drawing words out on
tied-over notes and fragmenting them with elaborate
trills and other ornaments. He objects to placing
words so they're Unintelligible. He objects
to the Tautology of needlessly repeated
words. A century later, Tennyson would also
Musicians always make me say twice what I would
say only once.
The last item in Franklin's list is Screaming
I've sung a lot of Handel's music myself, and I've
often loved the way he sets words. But I was raised
on Handel. Franklin was honing a vision of a nation
run by hard-working citizens, and they didn't
create music like this. Franklin thought vocal
music should be a tuneful but straightforward
vehicle for text. He adds a comment any good singer
had better heed today. He says many leading English
singers are lazy about consonants. Their singing
isn't about words; it's only about showing off
their vocal technique.
He finishes with an analogy. Wigs were invented to
replace missing hair. But they've turned into
something with no relation to natural hair. The
wigs of the wealthy are patently false.
Years later, a much older Franklin turned up in
France representing our new nation. He brought
along his glass armonica, and he appeared in the
salons flaunting his unwigged, balding head. By
then, Franklin's egalitarian ideas were no longer
just ideas. The straightforward, tuneful, wigless
country that he'd worked to create was now a
reality. And, by now, Franklin was the perfect
representative of that new country.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Franklin, B., Experiments and Observations Made in
America at Philadelphia ... 4th ed., London:
Printed for David Henry; and sold by Francis Newbery,
at the corner of St. Paul's Church Yard: MDCCLXIX.
The letter to Franklin's brother appears on pp.
473-478, and a letter describing the design of the
glass armonica appears on pp. 427-433.
This book was selected to represent the UH College
of Engineering in the Library's celebration of
passing its two millionth volume landmark. This
particular volume was subsequently owned by
Michael Faraday. The
selection and acquisition was made with help from
Roger Eichhorn, Kitty Elledge, Ray Flummerfelt,
Stuart Long, Dorothy Barrera and myself from the
College of Engineering, and Margaret Culbertson and
Derral Parkin from the UH Library. The book was
purchased from Antiquariat Botanicum in
My thanks to Ed Doughtie of Rice University for the
For more on Benjamin Franklin use the SEARCH
function. See especially, Episodes 510, 141,
Click on any of the thumbnails
below to see a full-size image
From left to right: Title page, a tornado over
water, the Franklin Stove
From left to right: three pages of Franklin's
letter to his brother.