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A harmonica is a free reed musical wind instrument (also known, among other things, as a mouth organ, french harp or "Mississippi saxophone"), having multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reedss, each secured at one end over an airway slot of like dimension into which it can freely vibrate, thus repeatedly interrupting an airstream to produce sound.

Unlike most free-reed instruments (e.g., reed organs, accordions and melodicas), the mouth harmonica lacks a keyboard. Instead, lips and tongue are used to select one or a few of the several holes arranged usually linearly on a mouthpiece. Each hole communicates with but one, two or a few reeds. Because a reed mounted above slot is made to vibrate more easily by air from above, reeds accessed by a mouthpiece hole often may be selected further by choice of breath direction (blowing, drawing).

Some harmonicas also include a button-actuated slide that, when depressed, further redirects the air.

The harmonica is commonly used in blues and folk music, but also in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll and pop music.

See Pan pipes.

Table of contents
1 Parts of the harmonica
2 Harmonica types
3 History and related instruments
4 Harmonica community
5 Some famous harmonicists

Parts of the harmonica

The harmonica consists of a "comb" made of wood or plastic which creates the holes into which a player blows or draws to make distinct tones. The metallic blow and draw reedplates are screwed onto either side of the comb. Over the reedplates, there is a metal or plastic cover which projects the sound out of the open back. Chromatic harmonicas also have a button-activated slide.

Harmonica types

The diatonic harmonica

The diatonic harmonica is most likely what you think of when you think of a "harmonica." It has ten holes which offer the player 19 notes (10 holes times a draw and a blow for each hole minus one repeated note) in a three octave range. The standard diatonic harmonica is designed to allow a player to play chords and melody in a single key. Because they are only designed to be played in a single key at a time, diatonic harmonicas are available in all keys. Here is a standard diatonic harmonica's layout in the key of C (1 blow is middle C):

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C | 
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 

Note that although there are 3 octaves between 1 and 10 blow, there is only one full major scale available on the harmonica, between holes 4 and 7. The lower holes are designed around the tonic (C major) and dominant (G major) chords, allowing a player to play these chords underneath a melody by blocking or unblocking the lower holes with the tongue.

In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. Using bending, a player can reach all the notes on the major scale. "Bending" also creates the glissandos characteristic of much blues and country harmonica playing.

The physics of bending are quite complex, but amount to this: a player can bend the pitch of the higher-tuned reed down toward the pitch of the lower-tuned reed in any given hole. In other words, on holes 1 through 6, the draw notes can be bent and on holes 7 through 10 the blow notes can be bent. Hole 3 allows for the most dramatic bending: in C, it is possible to bend 3 draw from a B down to a G#, or anywhere in between.

Howard Levy developed another technique in the 1970s that allows players to force a reed to vibrate faster, resulting in a higher pitch. This technique is called overblowing or overdrawing and is much less frequently used. For the few who master this technique, the diatonic harmonica can function as a fully chromatic instrument.

List of Modern Overblow Masters:

Special tuned harmonicas

The Hohner Marine Band 1896 14 hole harmonica is not a standard diatonic harmonica. It has 14 holes and its general dimensions are a bit bigger, so its structure is different from the normal diatonic harmonica and it is pitched one octave lower than the standard 10 hole diatonic. Thus, hole 4 blow is one octave below middle C. Hole 7 blow is middle C. Holes 1 through 4 and 6 are draw bendable, and holes 8 through 14 are blow bendable.

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 
blow: |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |G |C |E |
draw: |D |G |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A |B |D |F |A | 

The chromatic harmonica

The chromatic harmonica has a button-operated slide that allows the player to change the pitch of any given hole. This means that each hole has 4 pitches rather than 2. The slide typically shifts the pitch of any given note by a half step. The note layout on a chromatic is traditionally the same as the note layout on holes 4-7 of the diatonic harmonica, and is repeated over its length. Chromatic harmonicas are usually 12 or 16 holes long.

Because it is a fully chromatic instrument, the chromatic harmonica is the instrument of choice in jazz and classical music. In traditional harmonica bands, the chromatic harmonica plays the lead part.

       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
blow: |C |E |G |C |C |E |G |C |E |G |  key out
draw: |d |f |a |b |d |f |a |b |d |f | 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ------------------------------ blow: |C#|E#|G#|C#|C#|E#|G#|C#|E#|G#| key in draw: |d#|f#|a#|b#|d#|f#|a#|b#|d#|f#| ------------------------------

Note that there is no b# so it is a C. Neither is there a E# which is an F.

The bass harmonica

The bass harmonica is a special harmonica mostly used in ensemble playing. It usually consists of two harmonicas held together, one above the other, by an adjustable bracket. the lower harmonica has the natural notes of the chromatic scale, while the upper harmonica has the accidental notes. The bass harmonica has only blow notes.

Please add some text if you know something of the bass harmonica. Lengthy description at: http://www.bassharp.com/bh_101.htm

The chord harmonica

Please add some text here if you know something of the chord harmonica.

The echo harmonica

Echo harmonicas have two reeds per note, one of the reeds slightly out of tune. This produces a tremolo effect.

Please add some text here if you know something about the echo harmonica.

Toy harmonicas

More information can be found on www.harmonica.ws

History and related instruments

The unrelated glass harmonica is a musical instrument formed of a nested set of graduated glass cups mounted sideways on an axle and partially immersed in water, and played by touching the rotating cups with wetted fingers, causing them to vibrate.

Harmonica community

There is an active harmonica community on the internet and in real life, with conferences, cruises and everything. SPAH (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica) is one society with a particularly amusing acronym. [1] A harmonica list-serv is hosted at this web site with searchable archives.

Some famous harmonicists

Harmonica bands

Blues players

Rock and roll

Rhythm and blues

Country music


Classical music