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A musical instrument of torture
David Macmillan
By Dave Macmillan
BBC Tees

An expert from Durham University says extreme reactions to cultural events are not a modern phenomenon.

Explicit novels, threatening music and violent video games have caused outrage and hysteria.

But 200 years ago there was an altogether different threat to sensitive dispositions.

Dr James Kennaway says medics feared the sound of a musical instrument had the ability to kill you stone dead.

Glass harmonica
A glass harmonica built using Benjamin Franklin's design

Hysterical response

Some extreme claims have been made about the threat modern music poses to common morality.

Listening to rap was supposed to make you treat women as objects and guns as toys, heavy metal was said to play perpetually on Satan's iPod.

Punk was considered a crude affront to public decency, and rock 'n' roll... well, civilisation was going to be destroyed with one thrust of Elvis Presley's hips.

But for all fears about how these genres would unleash something close to armageddon on society, none come close to reaching the levels of hysteria predicted for one eighteenth century instrument.

People thought, quite simply, that the glass harmonica would kill you.

Dr James Kennaway is an expert in the psychology of music at Durham University:

"One of the most dangerous of all instruments was the glass harmonica," he says, "it was more or less a version of playing glasses half filled with water and moving your finger round and round the rim.

"There were plenty of doctors 200 years ago who would have sworn blind that playing that music or even listening to it could kill you, especially if you were a woman, stone dead."

Delicate disposition

The glass harmonica was invented by Benjamin Franklin, working with glassblower Charles James.

The instrument, from the crystallophone family, consisted of a series of different sized glass bowls attached to a spindle which was turned with a foot pedal.

As Dr Kennaway explains, "experts" thought a lady's disposition was too delicate to survive it:

"It would 'over strain the nerves.'

"So they even invented versions of the glass harmonica that you could play with a key board to save those sensitive female nerves, so no more pretty rich girls had to die!"

Romantic disorientation

Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss all wrote pieces for the glass harmonica.

And they were by no means the only composers who had eighteenth century physicians panicking.

Wagner at the time was regarded as a kind of dangerous anarchist and probably bad for you
Dr James Kennaway

It was thought that listening to music by Richard Wagner could cause madness, illness and even gender confusion.

"Wagner at the time was regarded as a kind of dangerous anarchist and probably bad for you," says Dr Kennaway.

"There are plenty of examples of people writing that Wagner could make you ill or that he could make you gay.

"On the one hand, of course, its kind of crazy and these doctors are getting carried away, but on the other hand because people believed in it, it has a certain reality."

And despite the risk of death and romantic misdirection, the walls in Dr James Kennaway's office at the Wolfson Research Institute in Stockton still resound with life threatening sounds.

"I do listen to Wagner," he says," especially the bits that are supposed to be most dangerous for you.

"And I have come off unscathed, I think. Just about."

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