The Many Musical Talents of Benjamin Franklin

Scientist, inventor, statesman, writer ...composer? Benjamin Franklin’s talents extended far beyond his writing desk and workshop and into the world of music.

A lifelong fan of song, Franklin played many instruments, including the guitar, harp, and viola da gamba, a cello-like stringed instrument. He even invented one—the glass armonica—after seeing performers make music with glasses of water. In his letters, Franklin recounts many happy evenings playing the armonica alongside his daughter, Sally. “Of all my inventions,” Franklin wrote, “the glass armonica has given me the most personal satisfaction.”

When it came to the popular music of the day, Franklin had rather strong opinions. In an undated letter to his brother, Peter, Franklin wrote:

Do not imagine that I mean to depreciate the skill of our composers of music here; they are admirable at pleasing practisedears, and know how to delight one another; but, in composing for songs, the reigning taste seems to be quite out of nature, or rather the reverse of nature.

He also critiqued a tune Peter had written: "I like your ballad, and think it well adapted for your purpose of discountenancing expensive foppery, and encouraging industry and frugality."

Franklin himself preferred simpler tunes, such as Scottish folk songs. In a 1765 letter to his friend Lord Kames, Franklin extolled (in a mere 980 words) the virtues of “compositions of Melody and Harmony united.”

The Connoisseurs in modern Music will say I have no Taste, but I cannot help adding, that I believe our Ancestors in hearing a good Song, distinctly articulated, sung to one of those Tunes and accompanied by the Harp, felt more real Pleasure than is communicated by the generality of modern Operas, exclusive of that arising from the Scenery and Dancing.

Franklin the Composer

So what of Franklin’s own musical endeavors? 

In addition to a drinking song written in his youth, Franklin is believed by many to have composed a string quartet around 1778 while living in Paris. (Historians are torn—Franklin is listed on the manuscript as the author but it’s not in his hand and his name is misspelled "Francklin," hence the dispute. Franklin also did not refer to the piece in any of his writings.) 

After its publication, the composition was lost to history until the 1940s, when a French musicologist discovered a manuscript of it at the Conservatoire de Paris. It had languished in a box of unrecorded documents until Guillaume de Van found it while classifying historical items.

The piece is not often played, probably because it’s, well, odd. In addition to being written for three violins and one cello instead of the normal two violins, viola, and cello, it makes use of scordatura, a technique in which the instruments are retuned for special effect. 

Some scholars believe the composition was a piece of tongue-in-cheek performance art. And what did Franklin’s contemporaries think of it? One review called the work a "musical farce," a "miserable work," and "degrading to the art." 

A New Life

The Franklin Institute has given this composition a new spin—as the soundtrack for The Adventures of Benjamin Franklin, a retro 8-bit-style game in which Ben Franklin races to collect lightning, climb Independence Hall, and more. To create the score, three parts of the quartetto (March, Minuet, and Capriccio) were converted into MusicXML, an open file format for music, and then arranged for 8-bit-style sound: a pulse wave, some square waves, and white noise for percussion. 

Sheet music by Benjamin Franklin has been converted to MusicXML format and arranged for 8-bit style synth instruments.  Sheet music for compositions attributed to Benjamin Franklin has been converted to MusicXML and arranged for use as the soundtrack to an 8-bit style video game, The Adventures of Benjamin Franklin.

Credit: Aaron Miller

Franklin the Muse

Franklin himself was the inspiration for a piece of music or two. “La Voltaire et La Franklein” is an 18th-century arrangement for a contredanse, or folk dance, that celebrates Franklin’s meeting with the French writer. 

And recently, blockbuster Hamiltonstar Lin-Manuel Miranda teamed up with the Decemberists on “Ben Franklin’s Song,” a profanity-rich tune about “Poor-Richard's-Almanack-writing, polymath, bifocal-wearing, harp and glass-armonica-playing Benjamin F----- Franklin”:  

I'm the only American the French wanna see
They call me a genius, I can't disagree

Neither can we.

May 17, 2018 | Nancy Gupton