Tuesday, 28 August 2018

A final thought about the glass harmonica: beware wineglass thinking

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

I have previously described how Benjamin Franklin used the following two creative problem solving techniques whilst inventing the glass harmonica. (Please click on the links to find out more about them and read descriptions of how Franklin used them):
  1. Changing the angle from which a problem is addressed.
  2. Applying inside out thinking to solving problems.
These techniques are very simple and, with hindsight, the solutions they enabled seem obvious. Obvious or not, however, it took a very long time for these solutions to be uncovered.

I have written about some of the reasons why this may be here, where I describe how timing and conditions need to be conducive to new and innovative ideas emerging.

In addition to these contextual reasons, there is a one other reason: one that originates from our tendency to become stuck within the ruts of habitual thinking when seeking to problem solve. In the case of the development of the glass harmonica and its predecessors, it was people's habitual perception of the ubiquitous wine glass that limited and in some cases reversed progress. 

Most of us, when we think of a wine glass, will imagine something like this:
 If we are shown something like this, we may feel very slightly uneasy:
 And if we see this, most of us will immediately think "what a waste":  
This type of thinking is habitual; we automatically think of a wine glass that is stable and upright so that it can be safely filled with our favourite drink. 

This image of an upright "effective" wine glass is etched into our day-to-day thinking and, like any habitual thinking, it has (given the right opportunity) the potential to influence how we seek to solve problems. This potential was realised during the development of the glass harmonica and its predecessors.

From the Renaissance up to and including the appearance of the glass harp during the Age of Enlightenment (a period of just under 400 years) the above mental model of a wine glass dominated thinking about making music with glass: an effective glass (whether it was used for drinking or playing) was always a stable upright glass into which liquid could be poured unspilt. Sets of upright wine glasses were, as far as is known, always used to make music and each glass was tuned to the required pitch by filling it with a specific amount of water.

Even when a Fellow of the Royal Society (Edward Delaval) became interested in the musical properties of glass, this mental model was never challenged. Delaval focused upon finding ways to improve the tuning and sound of the upright water-filled glasses of the glass harp (the glass harmonica's predecessor) rather than seeking radically different approaches.

For centuries, the development of glass musical instruments remained fixated upon upright wineglasses filled with water. This limited their viability and effectiveness, the former because of the glasses' fragility and difficulty to transport and the latter because of upright wine glasses' inability to enable rich and florid playing of a wide variety of music.     

Even when the glass harmonica was revealed to people (and with it a new way of perceiving glasses and making music with them) the habitual mental model of an upright filled wineglass was obstinately persistent in finding ways to interfere with people's thoughts.

Some observers of the instrument, not understanding its underpinning principles, sought to improve it by applying broken bits of their habitual mental model of a wineglass rather than sweeping them to one side and thinking afresh.

This caused faulty thinking that led to dubious suggestions for improvement. Specifically, some people instinctively clung to the notion that glasses were always there to be filled (even when they were there to be played). This led to a suggestion that the mechanism and sound of the glass harmonica could be improved if its sideways-on glass bowls were partially submerged in a trough of water. Suffice to say (and as the previous link explains) this dubious "improvement" proved disastrously cacophonous.

It is often our stuck and habitual thinking, our personal versions of the above "Wine Glass Thinking", that can hinder our ability to identify and develop innovative ideas.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would really like to hear people's views and ideas about music and creativity - just leave a quick message here.