Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Instrument Biography: The Harmonica

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The harmonica and the accordion are both reed organs. In the interest of space, their biographies have been broken out of the main reed organ (harmonium) article. (Reed organ and accordion articles are coming soon.)

The harmonica may have a reputation as a folk instrument, but it was invented for classical music and is really rather interesting despite its humble circumstances today. It came about as a result of experimenting with organ reeds and various ways of making them vibrate, including forms that include the accordion, the concertina, and the harmonium.

The first time I realized that the harmonica was a serious instrument was when I worked in a little ice cream parlor in high school. The owner was an Israeli immigrant who’d been the dance camp harmonica player at a kibbutz for American tourists. When Schlomo went in the back room and played, it was like a whole orchestra had gone in there with him. He played for such notables as Ray Bolger (of “Wizard of Oz” fame), who one day wandered into the shop hoping to reconnect with him.

It’s not a long history, but I think that you’ll find that it’s an interesting one.

The harmonica is a reed organ, but unlike the accordion or harmonium, human lungs are used as the bellows. The harmonica is also called the French harp, blues harp, and mouth organ among other names (see below for a longer list). It’s used in nearly every musical genre world-wide, but is given a starring role in blues, American folk, jazz, country, and rock and roll.

Harmonica History

The original mouth organs wouldn’t be recognized outside of rural China these days. I was fortunate enough to see these (they’re called shengs) used for folk dances on my trip there in 2010, in the province of Yunnan. Basically, a gourd is studded with long reeds, and a the player blows through a pipe attached to the gourd, through the neck of the gourd itself, or through a tube that crosses the length of the reeds. Some look a bit like a porcupine with very long spines, some look vaguely like a portative organ, and others look like a sideways panpipe. All three styles have very long reeds for a wind instrument, between 1-4 feet in length.

The Chinese sheng sounds more flutelike than harmonica-like to western ears, but it is nevertheless the parent of the harmonica. It’s likely that, along with the panpipe, the sheng was brought to Europe as a novelty and European instruments that suited European sensibilities evolved from it.

Free reed instruments, like the sheng, were common throughout Asia for centuries before they came to Europe and they were already known in Europe when a German named Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann got hold of the idea. He’s often cited as the inventor, but other instrument makers were also busy coming up with similar instruments. It isn’t known who really invented it, but Buschmann gets the credit, claiming that he got his idea from pitch pipes used to tune organs . His harmonica was only 2.75 inches long.

Mouth-blown free-reed instruments appeared in the US, South America, the UK, and all around Europe at around the same time.

Chamber harmonicas were available in Vienna before 1824, and the blow and draw mechanism followed shortly. Harmonicas were soon popular all over Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Harmonica makers proliferated and soon machines were used to punch out the covers and speed up the work. Everyone, from weavers to clockmakers got into the new industry, and soon varieties included tremolo, chromatic, bass, chord, and octave harmonicas. (More on those in the Structure section.)

Wherever it began, by the mid-19th century, its popularity had grown, especially in the Germanic regions, with cloth weavers, clock makers, and everyone else getting involved in manufacturing them. By the end of the 19th century, harmonicas were big business, and by the early 20th century, harmonicas were mass produced.

Harmonicas were popular on both sides of the American Civil War (1860s), and famous wild west personalities Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid were both said to play them. Harmonicas crept back to their classical music roots by the 1930s, but that wouldn’t last long.

There was a harmonica shortage in the US during World War II because wood and metals were needed for military efforts. Also, primary makers were in Germany and Japan, the US’s enemies at that time. A Dutch-American called Finn Magnus figured out how to make a molded plastic instrument with molded plastic combs and fewer pieces. The sound was quite different from the metal and wood version, and furthered the attitude that the harmonica was a toy. William Kratt got a patent in 1952 and the War Department allotted a rationed supply of brass to his factory so that the Red Cross could have harmonicas to pass out to overseas GIs.

After the war, the harmonica moved north with the blues as African-American workers headed to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York to find work in the 1950s. Once musicians began to amplify the guitar, double-bass, and voices, it didn’t take long for the harmonica to get into the act.

Japan began manufacturing harmonicas in the early 1900s, and by mid century, there were three companies making them, some of which continue to this day (two of them are Yamaha and Suzuki—don’t they also make motorcycles? Is there something to that?). Japan’s harmonica manufacturing was interrupted by World War II and has been slow to recover fully. Despite the hardship, they were famous for the tremolo instruments, and later for innovating major- and minor-tuned harmonicas.

The harmonica was often associated with the poor in the early 20th century (much like the dear little hurdy-gurdy in earlier times) because of its association with African-American music, hillbilly music, and jug bands. The harmonica only returned to its association with classical music in the 1930s.

Harmonica music became popular in China alongside the sheng, and by the 1930s (well before Mao Tse-Tung and the Cultural Revolution), interest in it had spread to Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. By the 1950s, the chromatic harmonica was popular in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas, and western players were invited to perform all over Asia. The Chinese YMCA Harmonica Orchestra had 100 members in the 1960s and the harmonica’s popularity grew steadily until the 1990s. Although there are still Chinese participants in international harmonica festivals, interest there, much as elsewhere, has dropped off.

These days, harmonicas are made world-wide. Major manufacturers are in Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, and the US.

Surprisingly, in recent years, the harmonica has been used for strengthening the lungs by the medical community. Inhaling and exhaling against a strong resistance are good for the lungs, helping to develop a strong diaphragm, and increasing the volume of air within the lung. Pulmonary specialists suggest that playing the harmonica can help COPD patients as much as a muscle trainer or spirometer. It’s also a nice incentive to exercise if you can make a little music while you’re at it.

Harmonica Structure

The harmonica is a flat, rectangular, metal box, usually small (most are a little wider than the palm of your hand and less than two inches long), with slit-like openings on both of its long sides. Each slit leads to a pair of reeds inside the box: one works by air pressure (blowing) and the other works by suction (inhaling). The instrument is placed against the lips and the player blows into or inhales (called a draw) against the slits, moving it back and forth to change notes along the scale.

The embouchure of the lips and tongue direct air into and out of one or more holes along the length of the mouthpiece. Behind the holes are chambers containing at least one reed. The reed is a flat, elongated spring made of brass or bronze and secured at one end over the slot. The slot is the airway. The free end alternately blocks and unblocks the airway as the player blows or sucks on it, and the vibrations produce sound.

Reeds are tuned to specific pitches by the manufacturer, and cannot be easily tuned by a player to change key signatures. Tuning involves changing the reed’s length, the weight near the free end, or the stiffness near the fixed end.

If the reed is fixed below the edge of its slot rather than within the plane of it, it’s easier to get the reed to move using air flow, vibrating to produce sound or closing the slot. There are two kinds of reeds within each slot: a blow reed and a draw reed. Older, less flexible harmonicas used flaps of leather (or plastic, later) as valves or wind-savers, to block the non-playing reed.

Longer, heavier, and more flexible reeds produce low notes, shorter, lighter, and stiff reeds make high notes. There is both a blow reed and a draw reed in the same chamber, which allows them to be played separately.

Pitch is produced by making the reeds vibrate, and each reed’s pitch can be altered by changing the mouth’s embouchure. This is called “bending” the notes. It’s possible to bend a single reed in a chromatic harmonica (or other styles that have wind-savers), but also to both raise and lower the pitch in pairs of reeds within the same chamber in a diatonic harmonica (or other styles with unvalved reeds). Such two-reed changes involve making both reeds sound at the same time.

it’s also possible to lower or raise (called overbending, overblowing, or overdrawing) the pitch on a diatonic or other unvalved harmonica. Such two-reed pitch changes involve sound production from the normally silent reed (the draw reed while the player is blowing or vice versa). Overbending, where the blowing or sucking is harder than necessary to merely create a sound, allows otherwise diatonic (do-re-me) instruments to play a chromatic scale. Overtones can be achieved by changing the size of the mouth’s cavity.

Vibrato is achieved by changing the way the harmonica is held, by quickly cupping the hands around the harmonica, or by shaking the head (rather than by fluctuations in wind speed, like on other wind instruments). This head-shaking method is most commonly used in blues, where the breath quickly alternates between two holes. This is slightly stronger than ordinary vibrato in that it changes the pitch by a greater distance than would be found in the vibrato of a stringed instrument or a voice (or a tremolo harmonica). Vibrato can also be achieved with the throat as it is with other wind instruments, although the sucking gesture is unique to the harmonica.

It’s possible to breathe noisily and rhythmically or to chant while playing the harmonica, which adds an interesting texture to the sound. Tongue blocking allows chords by preventing airflow past unused reeds, and hand effects can create bumpy or vibrato sounds.

The harmonica has three basic parts: the comb, the reed plates, and the cover plates

The comb is the main body of the instrument and contains the air chambers that cover the reeds. It looks like a wide-toothed hair comb. Combs were originally made from wood but are now usually plastic or metal—even titanium for high-end instruments. A wooden comb might expand slightly in response to the player’s breath, making it uncomfortable to play. The determining factor for the various comb materials is durability.

Combs often shrink over time, especially in chromatic harmonicas with thin dividers between chambers. This can lead to cracks because the comb is held in place by nails. Some players soak their wooden-combed harmonicas in water so that the slight expansion makes a seal between the comb and reed plates and to makes the covers more airtight. Modern instruments are less prone to swelling and contracting, although some players still dip their instruments into water because of how it affects the tone and eases bending notes.

The reed plate is the housing for the reeds. Reeds are usually brass, but steel, aluminum, and plastic are often used. Individual reeds are riveted to the reed plate, but they might also be welded or screwed in. Reeds fixed on the inside (within the comb’s chamber) respond to blowing and those on the outside respond to suction.

Most harmonicas have the reed plate attached to the comb or another reed plate by screws or bolts. A few brands still use the traditional method of nailing, and some have the reed plates held in place by tension (such as the World War II-era All-American models). If plates are bolted to the comb, the individual reed plates can be easily replaced. Reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and some notes are more likely to fail than others, so this ease of substitution saves the instrument from the second-hand store.

Finn Magnus’ all-plastic harmonica molded the reed and reed plate out of s single piece of plastic. This was glued to the comb.

Cover plates cover the reed plates and are usually made of metal, although wood and plastic are also used. Because they project sound, cover plates determine the tonal quality of the harmonica. There are two types of cover plates: the traditional open design of stamped metal or plastic, and enclosed designs, such as the Hohner and Suzuki high-end models, which are louder.

Additional features might include wind-savers, mouthpieces, slides, bells, neck racks, and amplification devices.

Wind-savers are one-way valves made from thin strips of plastic, knit paper, leather, or Teflon that is glued to the reed plate. They’re used when two reeds share a cell and leakage through the non-playing reed is significant. When a draw note is played, the wind-saver valve on the blow reed slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. These are common to chromatic harmonicas, chord harmonicas, and many octave-tuned harmonicas.

The mouthpiece is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player’s mouth. This can be part of the comb, the cover, or an entirely separate unite, secured by screws (such as in chromatics). In many harmonicas, the mouthpiece is purely ergonomic. In the traditional slider-based chromatic harmonica, the mouthpiece also provides a groove for the slide.

Special features, such as bells that could be rung by pushing a button, were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be fun to find one of those, wouldn’t it?

Harmonicas can be placed into a neck rack so that the player’s hands are free to play another instrument (acoustic guitars are a popular choice). The neck rack clamps the harmonica between two metal brackets, which are attached to a loop of metal that passes around the neck. Folk musicians often use neck racks, and lots of pop and blues players do too.

The harmonica may need to be amplified, especially blues harmonicas. This can be achieved with microphones and tube amplifiers. Some varieties of microphones allow the harmonica to be audible even over amplified electric guitars.

There are many types of harmonicas, including diatonic (the do-re-mi scale), chromatic (all the notes on a piano, black and white), tremolo, octave, orchestral, chord, bass, ChengGong, and pitch pipes.

Diatonic harmonicas (do-re-me) continue to be popular in European folk music, and blues and country have joined in, along with American folk. These instruments are in one particular key signature, and special techniques (such as bending) are required to get notes other than those in that specific collection of notes.

The chromatic harmonica uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed. This allows 12 notes in an octave scale rather than eight, as in the diatonic instrument.

The tremolo harmonica has two reeds per note, one slightly sharp and one slightly flat. This makes a wavering sound, like vibrato. This instrument is more popular in Asia than elsewhere, but you can also hear them on ballads, gospel, Latin, and European folk styles.

The octave harmonica is similar in structure to the tremolo harmonica, but the two reeds in each chamber are tuned to in octaves. This makes a richer sound than ordinary harmonicas, but because each note is reeded twice, has less range. These are common in Old-Time, Cajun, and Irish music.

There are eight kinds of orchestral harmonicas, offering a nice variety of sounds vaguely resembling orchestral instruments. The most common is the Horn harmonica, often found in Asia. These have a single large comb with blow-only reeds on both top and bottom, with each reed sitting inside a single cell of the comb. One version mimics the layout of a piano or mallet instrument, with the natural notes in the lower reed plate and the sharps and flats directly above in the upper reed plate. Orchestral harmonicas come in several pitch ranges, and usually cover two or three octaves. There’s another type that has the notes laid out all in a neat row, called the polyphonia or chromatic that play the same note on both blow and draw.

The chord harmonica has up to 48 chords in major, minor, seventh, augmented, and diminished versions. Notes are clustered together, four at a time, each sounding a different chord on blow and draw. Expensive versions have two reeds for each note, tuned in octaves, and gives a richer and louder sound.

Bass harmonicas are double-decked, having two hinged bodies connected along their length, with the natural notes on the lower instrument and the sharps and flats on the upper. Its range is about the same as that of a bass guitar, about two octaves, starting two octaves below middle C. Each hole of the mouthpiece accesses two reeds, tuned an octave apart. The instrument only works by blowing (the draw aspect is absent). These instruments offer a wonderful spooky sound, and I’d sure like to have one!

ChengGong harmonicas have a main body and a sliding mouthpiece that moves along a groove. This nifty thing is tuned to C major, but plays different chords and note combinations depending on the location of the mouthpiece in relationship to the reeds. The body is a 24-hole diatonic harmonica with an 11-hole mouthpiece. It’s capable of playing single-note melodies as well as double stops over three diatonic octaves using tongue-blocking. Blowing and drawing produce the same notes (like a tremolo).

A pitch pipe is a special harmonica that provides reference notes for singers, one note at a time (multiple notes are not possible). Chromatic pitch pipes provide all 12 notes, including the starting note at the octave. Pitch pipes sold to string players (such as guitarists and violin players) only provide the open string pitches.

Harmonica music can be in tablature as well as notation. Tablature indicates where the note is on the instrument rather than duration and pitch alone. This can be easier for untrained musicians to use, much as having the chords spelled out for guitar players does. Text Tab is another common type of harmonica tablature, and indicates when to blow or draw on the note by marking the position of the hole with a B for blow and a D for draw. Tablature usually aligns with lyrics to show tuning and timing rather than above notation.

Regular notation is also used, sometimes with a circled number below each note telling the position of the hole to play. An up or down arrow indicates whether the hole is blown or drawn. Curved arrows are used for bent notes. Cool, eh?

Harmonica Name

The harmonica was originally called a mouth organ both in German and in English. Buschmann called it a Mundäoline or aura. The French call it the harmonica a bouche.

In German, it’s a Mundharmonika (the accordion is the Handharmonika) In Scandinavian languages, the accordion is called the harmonica and a harmonica is a mundharmonika. In Slavic languages, the names are similar or the same as in Scandinavian languages.

In Italian, it’s an armonica a bocca, in Spanish, it’s armonica. In English the slang terms include French harp, blues harp, mouth organ, hand reed, licking stick, pocket sax, toe pickle, tin sandwich, ten-holed tin-can tongue twister. The Mississippi saxophone is a special amplified harmonica.

A Viennese fellow called Ernst Schmidt invented a form of harmonica called an apollolyra, with 44 reeds controlled by keys.

In French and German, the name harmonica is also used for a variety of instruments of the xylophone type (tuned strips of wood—harmonica de bois, Hotz-harmonika), steel (harmonica a lames d’acier, Stahiharmonika—or glockenspiel), stone (harmonica a lumes de pierre). The Ziehharmonika (German) is an accordion.

The glass harmonica is not a harmonica at all, but is a series of nested glass cups mounted sideways on a pole. It’s more of a xylophone than a harmonica. (It has no reeds at all.)

Harmonica Composers

Classical composers include Ralph Vaughn Williams, Darius Mihaud, Malcolm Arnold, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Arthur Benjamin. Jazz, blues, country, Cajun, and pop composers are too numerous to even begin to list. Instead, let’s look at who plays the harmonica.

Harmonica Players

Abraham Lincoln notoriously carried a harmonica in his pocket, and wild-westerners Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid both played.

For more popular genres of music, the number of players is really really long. So I’ll just bundle them up in bulk. These lists don’t even pretend to be comprehensive.

Pop: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon (Love Me Do, Please Please Me, I’ll Get You, and I Should Have Known Better, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, Rocky Racoon, Oh Yoko), Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Beck, Stevie Wonder, Al “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Jack Bruce (Cream), John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Donovan, Taj Mahal, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Huey Lewis, John Mayall, Paul Jones (Manfred Mann and The Blues Band), Tom Petty, Scott Thurston (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Roger Daltrey (The Who), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Bono (U2), Rick Davies (Supertramp), Sly Stone (Sly and the Family Stone), Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds.

Scottish or Irish folk: Benny Gallagher, Philip Achille, John and Pip Murphy, Noel Battle, Austin Berry, James Conway, Andy Irvine, Mick Kinsella, Brendan Power, Joel Bernstein, Don Meade, Paul Moran, Tom Byrne, Rick Epping.

Blues: Jimmy Reed and John Hammond Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson II, Big Walter Horton, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, Norton Buffalo, Jerry Portnoy, Lazy Lester, Sugar Blue, Billy Branch, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel, Junior Wells, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Kim Wilson, Slim Harpo, Howard Levy, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, Chris “Buddha” Michalek, Frederic Yonnet, Adam Gussow, Paul Nebenzahl.

“Race records” (meant for black audiences in the 1920s) were popular and featured DeFord Bailey, Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry.

Hillbilly: Frank Hutchison, Gwen Foster.

Jug Bands: Memphis Jug Band.

Classical: Larry Adler, Philip Achille, Nikki Gadout, Steve Baker, Johny Mueller, Will Burger.

Jazz: Philip Achille, Yvonnick Prene, Jean “Toots” Theilemans (also known for his whistling and his contribution to the theme song from Sesame Street).

Qawali (Sufi devotional music): Philip Achille.

Latin American: Flavio Guimaraes.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

”The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Harmonica,” by Randy F. Weinstein, and William Melton. Alpha Imprint of Penguin Group, New York, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by The Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co, Inc., New York, 1997.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson, Lorenz Books, Leicestershire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Carl Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” Edited by Stanly Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.


5 Responses

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  1. I love the fact that it could be used for strengthening the lungs and diaphragm!! What a great excuse to play!


    August 8, 2013 at 11:42 am

    • It’s probably true that any wind instrument can be used for strengthening the lungs, drums for building upper body strength, and all instruments for eye-hand co-ordination. But that the medical community blesses harmonicas and hands them out in physical therapy, well, that’s a hoot, isn’t it?

      Melanie Spiller

      August 8, 2013 at 11:58 am

  2. Dear Melanie, When did the German Buschmann “invent” the harmonica, whereby it appeared “

    August 9, 2013 at 10:46 am

    • Buschmann got his patent in 1821, but there’s still a fair amount of doubt about whether he invented it or was just the first to patent it. By 1824, there were other manufacturers and other people applying for patents.

      Melanie Spiller

      August 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm

  3. […] Instrument Biography: The Harmonica […]

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