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Thomas Jefferson’s. Instrument Petting Zoo. Click Door to Enter!. Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States. . Click anywhere to continue. But did you know that he was also a musician?.

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Thomas Jefferson’s

Instrument Petting Zoo

Click Door to Enter!


Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States.

Click anywhere to continue.


It’s true! He was a talented violinist who once said he practiced his violin three hours a day!

Click anywhere to continue.


He also loved to sing and often as he rode around his mountaintop home of Monticello, he would hum his favorite tunes.

Click anywhere to continue.


His two daughters, Martha and Maria, were also very musical. Both played the harpsichord and Maria played guitar.


English Guitar or Cittern

Click anywhere to continue.


There were no radios or mp3 players in Jefferson’s time. When he and his family wanted to listen to music they had to make it themselves!

Click anywhere to continue.


To see some instruments from Mr. Jefferson’s time, go into the parlor.

The parlor was where the family would gather to sing and play music together.

Try clicking on different objects and people in the room to see what happens!

Enter the Parlor



The harpsichord was the most important instrument of the 1600s and 1700s. It was used in opera houses, theaters, and by composers and dance masters. Harpsichords were often found in the homes of nobles and wealthy citizens. These instruments would have been painted with fancy patterns.

The harpsichord is like the piano except that the strings are plucked by quills from raven or crow feathers rather than struck by hammers. Also, many harpsichords had two keyboards.

There were always keyboard instruments at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, was a very good keyboardist. So was Jefferson’s daughter, Martha. Jefferson ordered Martha a very fine harpsichord from London while he was living in France. It took two years for the instrument to be built and shipped to his home in Paris!

The harpsichord became less popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the pianoforte was invented.

Return to Parlor

Harpsichord, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.



The pianoforte was one of the most important musical inventions of the 1700s. Keyboardists wanted an instrument that could play loudly, softly, and all the dynamic levels in between. Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the pianoforte which used leather covered hammers to strike strings in order to make sound. The harder the performer pressed the keys, the louder the sound. The lighter the performer pressed the keys, the softer the sound.

Thomas Jefferson ordered his soon-to-be wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, a pianoforte for a wedding present in 1772. She was an excellent musician who played the pianoforte and spinet (a small harpsichord) in the parlor at Monticello for visitors. Much later, in 1825, Jefferson bought another pianoforte for his granddaughter, Virginia Randolph.

The name “pianoforte” was shortened to piano in time. It is still one of the most popular musical instruments today.

Return to Parlor


Glass Armonica

While Benjamin Franklin was in London, he heard a performance on the verillon. The verillon was a series of wine glasses filled with different amounts of water. The performer rubbed his fingers around the rims to create sound. Franklin thought he could improve the verillon. In 1762, he invented the glass armonica.

He took different sized glass bowls, strung them together on a rod, and placed them in a wooden box with just enough water in the bottom to keep the bowls moist. When a foot pedal was pressed, the bowls would spin. The performer wetted his or her fingers and simply touched the rims of the spinning bowls to create sound.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven both wrote music for the glass armonica.

Thomas Jefferson never owned a glass armonica, but he once wrote to a friend asking how much one would cost. When he learned it would cost him 30 guineas, he quickly changed his mind about buying one. It was too expensive!

Glass armonicas were popular during Jefferson’s time, but by the 1830s they had disappeared. Probably because they were so fragile and cost so much money.

Return to Parlor

The Historical and Interpretive Collections of the Franklin Institute, Inc.


Hawkins Portable Grand Piano

Thomas Jefferson was always on the lookout for new inventions. While he was in Philadelphia, he came across John Isaac Hawkins. Hawkins dabbled in a little bit of everything from poetry to engineering. In 1800 he tried his hand at building musical instruments. He created the portable grand piano. It was a small, lightweight piano was the size of a small bookcase. It was one of the earliest upright pianos and Jefferson had to have one.

Jefferson bought the portable grand piano and shipped it to Monticello. When it arrived, it had been badly damaged by rain and was out of tune. Jefferson tuned it himself and he and his family agreed that it was a fantastic invention.

They soon changed their minds. The piano just would not stay in tune. Jefferson sent the piano back to Hawkins and him to repair it or exchange it for a better instrument. Hawkins promised to exchange the portable grand for his new invention, the claviol. Unfortunately, Hawkins never sent Jefferson the claviol or a new portable grand piano. He also never returned Jefferson’s money.

Smithsonian Institution Collections, National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Return to Parlor



We are not sure who taught Thomas Jefferson to play the violin, but by the time he was 14, he was already very good at it. He once said that he practiced his violin 3 hours a day was he was young! When he was going to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, he was invited by the Royal Governor to play the violin in his small chamber group.

It’s been said that it was Jefferson’s violin playing that won the heart of Martha Wayles Skelton who later became his wife. Jefferson played the violin his entire life, but while he was in Paris he broke his right wrist and it never healed properly. This injury affected his playing. He was never able to play as well as he had in the past and he began to play less often.

We know that Jefferson owned at least three violins. One was saved from a fire by Isaac, a family slave. He bought two while in Williamsburg and he bought a kit violin in Paris. A kit is a smaller version of the violin that was often used by dance masters. It was the perfect size for travelling. We don’t know what happened to Jefferson’s violins after he died. It is likely they were sold in order to pay off some of his debts.

Return to Parlor

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art



The cittern, or English guitar, was a very popular instrument in the 1700s. It is very different from the guitars we think of today. It had up to 10 strings and was tuned with a key. The strings were often made of wire which gives the instrument a strong ringing sound. It’s been said that the cittern was kept in barbershops in order to keep waiting customers happy.

Thomas Jefferson owned at least two guitars. While in Paris in 1787, Jefferson bought his ten year old daughter Maria a beautiful Spanish guitar.

Jefferson’s granddaughters Virginia, Cornelia, and Septemia also played the guitar. In 1816, Jefferson bought this cittern (pictured on right) for his granddaughter, Virginia. She was very excited about this gift and wrote about it:

“One morning, on going down to breakfast, I saw the guitar…Grandpapa told me that if I would promise to learn to play on it I should have it. I never shall forget my ecstasies.”

Cittern, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Return to Parlor



Thomas Jefferson was always interested in new gadgets. While he was in Paris, he visited Mr. Renaudin. Mr. Renaudin had invented a metronome. A metronome is a tool to help musicians play at the correct tempo. Mr. Renaudin’s machine used springs and wheels to swing a small weight at different speeds.

Jefferson thought that he could make a simple metronome with 5 brads (small nails), string, and a small weight. The weight was tied to the end of the string. The first nail was placed in the wall and the string attached to it so that it would swing 52 times a minute. The second nail was placed so that the string would swing 60 times a minute, the third at 70 times a minute, the fourth at 95 times a minute, and the fifth at 135 times a minute. Setting up this device was trial and error.

Jefferson said his metronome could be placed anywhere. A harpsichordist could put it on the wall above the keyboard and a violinist could attach it to a music stand.

A metronome isn’t a musical instrument, but it is a very important musical tool that we still use today. Modern metronomes are mechanical and some are even digital.

Return to Parlor


Music of the Enslaved People

In 1790, 118 enslaved people were living and working at Monticello. While it was a very hard life, they did find time to learn to play instruments and dance.

Plantation owners often encouraged slaves to learn to play instruments such as the violin. When there was a ball, wedding, or other special event, these musicians would be called upon to play for the festivities. Some of them were even allowed to make money playing their instruments for other plantation families. There were many ads for slaves that could play a certain instrument.

The enslaved people often had hand-me-down instruments from their owners, but they also made instruments out of whatever they could find. Tin cups, branches, and quills from feathers were all used to create instruments. Slaves also used their bodies as percussion instruments by clapping, stomping, and patting. Banjos were a common instrument made by slaves. It began as a drum with strings stretched over it. Over time it developed into the instrument we know today.

Singing was very important to the enslaved people. While out in the fields, groups of slaves would sing a rhythmic song in order to make the work easier. Many of these songs were made up on the spot and used call and response. The leader would sing one line and the group would respond.

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Suggested Musical Selections:


Kilbride, Pat, perf. "Cittern Jig." Undocumented Dancing. Pat Kilbride. Green Linnet, 2006. CD.

Glass Armonica

Hoffmann, Bruno, K. H. Ulrich, Helmut Hucke, Ernst Nippes, and Hans Plumacher, perfs. "Adagio in C Minor and Rondo in C Minor, K. 617." Benjamin Franklin & Music of the 18th Century. Leon Klayman, 2006. CD.


Lehman, Bradley, perf. "The President's March." Rec. 17 Feb. 2008. Music from the Jefferson Collection An Evening of Songs and Sonatas. Robert H. Smith Foundation for Jefferson Studies, 2009. CD.


Vigour, Pete, perf. "Money Musk." Monticello. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Web. Summer 2011. <>.