The whimsical and melodious harmonica has a rich and lengthy history. Small enough to fit in the hand or a pocket, the harmonica produces a variety of sounds when the musician blows and draws air through the reeds. Americans fell in love with the wide variety of notes and music that they could produce from the harmonica. The small size and portability of the mouth organ makes it an attractive instrument for musicians playing jazz, folk, country, blues, and rock music on the theater stage or at home in the living room.
Some variation of this mouth organ dates back approximately 1,000 years to Asia. The modern-day harmonica originated in Germany in the early 1800s. Christian Bauschmann was a musician and inventor in Germany, and in 1822, he designed a new instrument that he called an “aura.” This instrument had 15 reeds. The original intent of the instrument was to use it as a pitch pipe in conjunction with other instruments.
Another German entrepreneur found the aura intriguing, and he began making replicas to sell inexpensively. Others eventually caught on, and they began mass-producing harmonicas for both personal play and theater performances.
A harmonica consists of an outer case made out of plastic, wood, or metal called the “comb.” Inside the small case sit reeds that vibrate when the musician blows or draws air through the 10 holes on the edge of the instrument. Reeds are typically made out of brass, steel, aluminum, or plastic. A cover plate surrounds the reeds, usually made out of metal or plastic. The style and material used for the cover plate will determine the overall tone and sound of the harmonica. The mouthpiece of the harmonica helps the musician by making blowing and drawing air through the reeds more comfortable.
The diatonic blues harp harmonica is one of the most common and popular types of mouth organs. “Diatonic” means that the instrument plays in a standard scale and specific keys such as the key of C. Diatonic harmonicas have 10 holes with notes arranged in a special pattern. Beginners often choose to learn a diatonic harmonica because they are easier to play than chromatic harmonicas.
Chromatic harmonicas will play every note, both natural and sharp or flat, on a chromatic scale. This additional range enables the musician to play music in a variety of keys. A special slide on a chromatic harmonica enables sharp and flat notes.
Playing the diatonic harmonica involves holding it between the thumb and index finger and curving the remaining fingers around the case to create a little space for sound resonation. Place the other hand over the harmonica to make a tight seal with both hands. The musician places the mouth on the mouthpiece over specific holes to play desired notes. It’s possible to play one note at a time or more than one note to create chords. Some chords require use of the tongue to block certain holes.
With practice, the harmonica player will learn different techniques such as the pucker, the lip-block, and the U-block to play notes and chords. Some musicians learn a special technique called “vocaling.” To perform this type of playing, you would actually speak words or sing into the mouthpiece. For example, saying the sounds “too wee” into the mouthpiece creates a distinctive train whistle sound with the harmonica.
Although harmonicas appear simple in design, these mouth harps are actually a very difficult and complicated instrument to learn and master. A number of famous musicians have incorporated the harmonica into theater stage performances and recorded music.
Credence Clearwater Revival included harmonica music in their hit song “Down on the Corner.” Ella Fitzgerald typically included harmonica music in her live performances. Stevie Wonder even played the harmonica in some of his recorded songs.
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