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Instrument Biography: The Free-Reed Organ (Harmonium)

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In the interest of space, the reed organs known as the harmonica and the accordion have been broken out of this biography. For more on organs in general, check out my blog post on Pipe Organs.

Reed organs were the main type of organ in households and smaller churches before there were electronic organs. Their volume and tonal range was quite limited and had only one or two manual keyboards and, rarely, a pedal keyboard. The bellows were operated by the feet, which would make a pedal keyboard quite a feat (har har) of coordination.

There are three types of reed organs covered in this article: pump organs (like a small pipe organ with sewing-machine-style foot pedals), melodeons (like a virginal or a table-top keyboard with the bellows hidden in a small chest-like box on the table), and harmoniums (a portable box containing a bellows with the keyboard attached to the front that the player sits on the floor to play).

Several million pump organs were made between the 1850s and the 1920s. Often ornately carved, they were a sign of affluence in private homes. The melodeon predates the pump organ, and the harmonium, like the accordion, is limited to folk or ethnic music.

Squeezeboxes, such as the accordion, concertina, bandoneon, are also free reed instruments, but they that are played by squeezing the bellows as part of the gesture of making notes sound. Unlike other instruments where the bellows are separated mechanically from the keyboard, the keyboards and chord buttons are attached to the bellows itself and the movement of the arms to pump the bellows must be coordinated with the playing of the hands across the keys. You’ll find out more about them in my Instrument Biography: The Accordion.

The harmonica is also a reed organ, and in this instrument, human lungs are used as the bellows, and the reeds work in two directions (sucking and blowing). You can read all about them in Instrument Biography: The Harmonica.

Reed Organ History

It’s thought that the Chinese free-reed instruments traveled through Russia, and then came to the rest of Europe in the late 18th century. Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang. All of these are probably the ancestors of the western reed organ. The panpipes and the bagpipes are other ancestors. It’s a big family.

In the early 19th century, European instrument makers played with the idea of freeing the reeds from the pipes, and created a mouth organ (a flat box with grooves for the reeds—now a harmonica), an accordion (using the whole instrument as a bellows with reeds in the two headboards). These styles played both by blowing and sucking.

Pump Organ

Styled after the regal organ (biography to come) with free reeds, the pump organ was created to be more expressive during the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Romantic, when dynamics (loudness) became essential to the success of musical instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), a professor of physiology at Copenhagen, is thought to have invented the first such instrument in Europe. It was further perfected by Parisian G.J. Grenie (sorry, I couldn’t find dates for him) in 1810, and both called It an orgue expressif.

Despite impressive dimensions, early pump organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were out of tune and too loud, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player had to pull and push sliders one at a time in order to make a sound. A melody could be played only very slowly, and more than two parts was impossibly complex. So instrument makers kept working on their design.

Alexandre Debain (1809-1877) improved on the instrument and called it a harmonium when he patented it in 1840. (Resources waffle between calling a piano-like pump organ a harmonium and calling a simple accordion-like box with a keyboard a harmonium. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will call only the accordion-like instrument a harmonium.) Debain’s model was good enough to be considered a suitable substitute for an orchestra in domestic music and light music arrangements until the first half of the 20th century. It was also popular for church music and silent movies.

After emigrating to the US, a mechanic who’d worked in Debain’s factory created a suction bellows to replace one that forced air outward through the reeds. By 1860, suction bellows organs had become the main mode of construction in the US. This instrument is quieter and has a more pipe organ-like tone than the other kinds of reed organs.

Theodore-Achille Muller made a model that could be folded up into a box. The original instrument was patented in 1842 and had a three-octave keyboard, one set of reeds (later versions have four sets) of varying thicknesses and lengths, and a single blowing pedal-driven bellows. More advanced models had five-octave keyboards, stops and couplers for fancy things like octaves and vibrato. Each key on the keyboard controlled a valve that regulated the amount of wind produced by the compression bellows. Another advance was a shifting keyboard, which permitted transposition at any interval, while playing the music as notated. I’d like one of those!

In 1854, Victor Mustel (1850-1890) added a divided expression stop that was worked by knee levers. As you’ll learn in the Structure section, this stop allows louder and softer sounds to come from the instrument when the stop is pulled.

In the late 19th century, the reed organ was popular in Europe and the US for classical music, regarded as a serious instrument for serious composers (see below for a list). It was often used to accompany voices. In the US, the repertoire tended to target amateur musicians, often used in folk music of the Appalachians, for instance.

By their heyday, pump organs came in many different styles, from compact single-keyboard instruments with a single set of reeds and one or two foot treadles to pump the bellows, to two-keyboard instruments with several sets of reeds of differing colors and pitches, powered by a separate blowing lever or electric motor, like those on a pipe organ. The most common type of pump organ has two-to-five sets of reeds, one keyboard, and accessories (couplers) to achieve octaves and tremulant (vibrato). These instruments competed with the piano for parlor space in the 19th century, and were common in small churches.

Pump organs were at their most popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ was inappropriate due to size or expense. Pump organs weigh less than pianos of a similar size and are physically hardier. This made them popular in oversees outposts because they shipped and transported easily across unpredictable terrain. Reeds hold their pitch even in humid or hot weather, unlike stringed instruments, such as pianos. They became so popular as colonial instruments, in fact, that manufacturers began to impregnate the wood casings with a chemicals that helped prevent woodworm damage.

At its peak of popularity, variety in structure and ornamentation was extensive. There were plain cases with only four stops (or none) and ornate cases with a dozen stops and other mechanisms, such as couplers. The expensive ones were built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top. A few were built with two manual keyboards, and some were built with pedal keyboards, which meant that an assistant had to pump the bellows until later versions ran on electricity.

Large versions were meant for home use, which allowed pipe organists to practice on an instrument roughly the same size as the organ they performed on. Missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, and evangelists found the smaller ones more convenient because they folded to the size of a large suitcase. Some of these had a short keyboard and only a few stops, by they were sufficient for accompanying small congregations.

Pump organs became quite complex and it was common for manufacturers to develop their own versions and patent them, especially the bellows mechanisms. As the number of manufacturers grew, so did the complexity of the instrument, with levers, cranks, rods, and shafts. This made them more vulnerable to failure and also contributed to the popularity of the electric organ.

The invention of the electric organ in the 1930s provided the funeral dirge for the pump organ. The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ with the same small dimensions. Maintenance was less and there were more stops and other features possible.

The last mass-producer of pump organs was Estey, in the US (Vermont), who stopped manufacturing pump organs in the 1950s. Instruments and replacement parts became increasingly hard to come by, and many were updated with electric blowers. Electronic instruments completely took over the domestic market and modern instruments have an electric wind supply, leaving the feet free to play pedal keyboards.

Despite such general ignominy in the west, pump organs have remained popular in South Asia.

Melodeon

The melodeon is a reed instrument with an air reservoir and a foot-operated bellows, popular in the US in the mid-19th century. It looks like a very skinny upright piano or an impractical writing desk. Its whistle-like reeds are often hidden behind an attractively carved cover, and it comes with a keyboard and one or two sets of interchangeable reeds. Like the pump organ, wind is moved past the reeds by way of treadles through a bellows and several coupling contraptions.

The reeds are tuned as they are in the pump organ, with a flap of metal or wood, shaved to produce a specific note, and vibrated by means of the air passing by. The difference between a pump organ and a melodeon is one of portability and ornamentation.

There’s another instrument called the melodeon that’s like an accordion, but without a keyboard. It’s played with push buttons determining the notes. The right hand plays the high notes and the left hand plays the low notes, and both operate the bellows by pushing and pulling, just like an accordion. This instrument is also occasionally called the lap organ.

Writing this piece, where harmoniums are pump organs and melodeons are pump organs and both are accordions, I am reminded of royalty in England, where everyone seems to be a Henry or an Edward, or maybe, for a little variety, an Alfred, Mary, or Jane. If you invent something or found a dynasty, please do your biographers a favor and give your progeny a unique name, okay?

Harmonium

The harmonium came to India in the mid-19th century via missionaries from Europe and England and it quickly became popular. (India is the one place where it has stayed popular, too.) It became a staple of North Indian classical music concerts and is commonly found in Indian homes. Although originally derived from a French version, Indian musicians developed it further, including drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism, to better serve the Indian sensibilities.

In Calcutta (also called Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal) the harmony flute was developed into a hand-held harmonium, which has become an integral part of Indian music to this day. Internationally renowned India poet Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926) is said to have used one in 1860 in his private theater, but it’s possible that this was a pedal-pumped version, or some form of reed organ. Regardless, the harmonium’s popularity rose as a result, and the hand-held version evolved.

The American harmonium was invented in Paris (how ironic) in 1835 and was further developed by Estey of Vermont (in the US) and by Mason and Hamlin of Massachusetts (US again) in 1861.

The harmonium was widely used in Parsi and Marathi stage music in India in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, nationalist movements pushed the harmonium out. It couldn’t produce slides between notes (called meend) and it couldn’t be tuned during performance, both of which made it seem less useful than indigenous instruments. It was banned from All India Radio between 1940 and 1971 and the ban still stands for harmonium solos.

Despite these limitations, the harmonium is used in Indian classical music of the early 20th century—it is easy to learn, it supports group singing and large voice classes, ragas (chants) can be learned on it, and it’s loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. Nowadays, it’s the instrument of choice for accompanying North Indian classical vocalists.

Since the 1920s, small harmoniums have been made in India and Pakistan. They’re widely used to accompany devotional music in India and wherever else Indians have settled, and sadly, have contributed to the diminishing popularity of indigenous Indian instruments.

All Indian instruments are played while sitting on the floor or stage, so the harmonium was placed on the floor or held on the lap. It was usual for Indian homes not to have tables or chairs, so the switch to a home version was quite natural. The player could use his feet to pump the bellows, leaving both hands free to play the keyboard for chordal music (from the West). But Indian music isn’t chordal, so only one hand was necessary to play the keyboard and the other could be used to pump the bellows most of the time.

Hindus and Sikhs often use a harmonium to accompany devotional songs (bhajan or kirtan), and most Hindu or Sikh temples have at least one harmonium, world-wide. The harmonium is often accompanied by the tabla (two small hand drums, side-by-side, much like a detached bongo) and a dholak (a two-headed barrel-shaped hand drum).

Because the harmonium can’t be tuned and is certainly not flexible in tuning while being played, it’s controversial in Qawwali music (Sufi worship music), although it’s often the only instrument providing the music.

Harmoniums were particularly popular during a folk music renaissance in the late 1970s in the European north, particularly in Finland. Folk bands often consisted of a violin, double bass, and harmonium.

There is a 22-microtone harmonium developed by Vidyadhar Oke (dates unknown, but he’s still alive) that can play all the notes required in Indian classical music rather than the more limited 12 tones of the western scale. The fundamental tone and the fifth are fixed, but the other 10 notes of the western scale have two microtones each, one above and one below the pitch. The microtone is produced by pulling out a knob beneath the key.

Another fellow called Bhishmadev Vedi (sorry, again I couldn’t find dates, but I did find a contemporary mention in 1915) changed the instrument by augmenting it with a harp-like string box attached to the top. His disciple, Monohar Chimote (1929-   ), called the instrument a samvadini.

A near relative of the harmonium is a shruti (or sruti) box. This is a simple form of harmonium, where only a single note is meant to be played at a time. A stop allows airflow past the chosen reed, and the bellows are worked with one hand. The shruti box looks something like an office file with accordion pleats, and sounds like a reedy bagpipe drone. It’s used to accompany singing or flute playing, but is too quiet to participate in orchestral compositions. I have one, and I adore it for singing chant against, or teaching a voice student about tuning. It has 12 notes, but the scale is pentatonic (five notes to the scale rather than eight), so some notes are repeated in the octave.

Reed Organ Structure

“Reed organ” is the generic term for a keyboard instrument whose sound is produced by freely vibrating reed tongues, usually without individual resonators, and activated by air pressure or suction.

First, a definition. A reed is considered “free” if it is allowed to vibrate without restraint. So an oboe or a shawm is technically a free reed instrument. One end is attached, and the other vibrates, as a function of air pressure, within the player’s mouth. An instrument like a recorder or a pipe organ is not a free reed. The air passing through the tube of the instrument bounces of the walls and is squeezed through a specific stiff opening in order to produce the note. You could think of it as the difference between blowing across a blade of grass (free reed) and blowing across an open bottle (fixed reed).

Reeds can be made of wood, metal, paper, or cloth. Anything that retains its shape and can be affixed snuggly at one end will do, really. In the case of pump organs and harmoniums, they’re usually metal or wood.

The reed is screwed down tightly at one end and is shaped to fit closely into an aperture in a rigid piece of metal, which lies between a lower wind-chest and an upper wind-chest. Air fills the lower wind-chest and spreads around the reed into the upper wind-chest. The upper wind-chest’s opening is covered by a felted block of wood. When the appropriate key is depressed, the block is raised and the air that surrounds the reed escapes from the upper chest.

When the block is raised, the pressure surrounding the reed changes. There is greater pressure below the reed than above (because of the open block), and the reed is forced upward, with the air rushing past it from the lower chest. Before the pressure in the two chests can equalize, the reed returns to its original position so that the flow of air is stopped. Now the pressure in the lower chest increases until it forces the reed to move out of the way again. This happens very quickly, in the form of a vibration.

The free reed of the pump organ is riveted into a metal frame. The range of vibrations from the reed is affected by damping (being mechanically touched), allowing the sound produced from the various reeds to be somewhat homogenous. Air must be pumped at a minimum speed to get any sound, and pumping too hard silences the reeds. Between the two extremes, it’s possible to get degrees of loudness. For this, there’s a stop, often operated by the player’s knee, that can increase or decrease the volume by changing the speed of the airflow.

The free reed mechanism is identical for both western and Indian harmoniums as well as the reed organ.

A reed organ is similar to an accordion or a concertina in that the reeds vibrate with either suction (a vacuum) or pressure. An accordion accomplishes this through the player’s hands, pulling and pushing on the bellows. A reed organ is usually on the floor (rather than held in the arms), and the bellows might be hidden by a wooden casing.

The bellows are operated by means of a treadle, like an old-fashioned sewing machine. (Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the sewing machine?) Harmoniums are hand pumped. In fancy pump organs, an assistant might be required to maintain the flow of air.

Debain (remember him from the History section?) developed a reservoir so that the action on the treadle was reflected through the feeder bellows directly onto the wind channels, creating crescendo and diminuendo (gradual loudness and softness). At about the same time (the 1840s), L.P.A. Marin de Provine (sorry, I couldn’t find dates) invented the prolongement to sustain notes after the key was released, and percussion, in which small piano hammers struck the reeds as if they were strings, giving a quicker and more precise response than wind.

Pitch depends on air pressure. In bass notes, the fundamental frequency (in hertz) decreases with medium pressure and increases by several hertz at high pressure (the note raises or lowers with more or less wind). High pressure can bend the reed beyond its frame, which limits its use.

The overtones of the reeds are harmonic rather than inharmonic (they’re limited to certain specific notes from the overtone scale), which matters if you’re looking for a rich and full sound. Overtones contribute hugely to whether an instrument sounds in tune, especially when played loudly.

Air pressure affects both pitch and volume. How fast or slow the bellows move determines how loud the notes are. In order to control the difference between pitch and volume, pressure bellows were invented to stabilize the amount of air available to the reeds. Instruments with pressure bellows are harder to build and are often more expensive, so North American and British reed organs and melodeons often use suction bellows and operate by creating (using) a vacuum.

The American reed organ is a foot bellows or electric reed keyboard similar to the harmonium but works on negative pressure (it sucks air through the reeds rather than pushing it through).

German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) wrote “On the Sensations of Tone” in 1875, which used a harmonium to test a variety of tuning systems. He said that the instrument sustained tones evenly with a piercing character, and that it combined tones in a unique and distinctive way. He considered the vibrators (reeds) to be tunable to a particularly fine degree.

Using two manual keyboards and two stop sets tuned differently, Helmholtz was able to compare Pythagorean tuning (a complex system where all intervals are based on a ratio—it has to do with dividing string lengths, and is WAY too complicated to go into here) to Just tuning (another ratio-based interval system) and Equal tuning (this system is based on equal distances between notes) and observe the “out-of-tune” degrees inherent in each temperament. Helmholtz subdivided the octave into 28 tones so that he could modulate among 12 minor and 17 major keys in Just intonation without creating unpleasant dissonances. Quite difficult to play, this was not a popular arrangement.

Other modified instruments were used for experimental and educational purposes, most notably the generalized keyboard designed by Englishman Robert Holford Macdowell Bosanquet (1841-1912). He built it in 1873 for use with a 53-tone scale (a “normal” chromatic scale has 12 notes). This harmonium had 84 keys, to make fingering convenient.

Lord John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), an English physicist famous for explaining why the sky is blue, used the harmonium to measure sound frequencies because of its clear overtone patterns that could be counted easily. He approximated Equal temperament intervals and examined their overtone beats. He had to concede, though, that the air pressure had to maintained exactly, or the tone fluctuated.

Orchestral instruments are tuned to 440 Hz, harmoniums are frequently tuned to 438 Hz, accordions are tuned to 442 Hz, and Baroque groups tune to 415 Hz. This is why you don’t see a lot of harmoniums (or accordions) playing with orchestras.

The Name

Common names for reed organs are harmonium, melodeon, lap organ, pump organs, vocalion, seraphine, orgue expressif, cabinet organ, or American organ (used in Europe to distinguish a suction instrument from a pressure instrument). Also aeolina, aeolodicon, euphonion, melodiflute, melophone, organochordium, and physharmonika.

Other reed organs include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas.

The poikilorgue was Cavaille-Coll’s version of the pump organ, with a range of an octave and a half.

To make things more confusing, in North America and the UK, a reed organ with a pressure bellows is called a harmonium and a suction reed organ is called a melodeon. In Europe, any reed organ is called a harmonium, even if it has a suction bellows.

Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang.

In India, the melodeon is what westerners would refer to as a concertina (see the article on accordions for more on these), and a harmonium is the portable chest variety of reed organ described above. Indian Sikhs call the harmonium a vaja or a baja. Some also call it a peti (which means “box”).

The name “harmonium” has been used in England and Europe to refer to reed organs in general. Larger instruments in Germany were sometimes called Kunstharmonium (art harmonium).

Reed Organ Composers

Repertoire for reed organs includes many pieces written for church organ despite their small range and minimal stops. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Fantasia in C major (BWV 570) can be played on a four-octave reed organ. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote Petite Messe Solennelle for piano and harmonium.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote Symphony No. 7 for chamber orchestra, and it was prepared for performance by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his Viennese friends on two violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn, piano (four hands) and harmonium. They never did perform it, and it wasn’t performed publically for another 60 years.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, and Movement II: Purgatorio has a reed organ in it. Cesar Franck (1822-1890) wrote a collection called L’Organiste for harmonium, some with piano accompaniment. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium (Op. 47). Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote Altenberg Lieder. Frederic Clay (1838-1889) wrote Ages Ago, with libretto by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.

Claude Debussy (1862-1914) wrote Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, from a chamber ensemble arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Gustav Mahler(1860-1911) wrote Symphony No. 8. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ariadne aug Naxos, which is an opera that uses a harmonium with many stops, as specified in the score. Edward Elgar (1857-1954) wrote Sospiri, an Adagio for String Orchestra, scored for harp or piano and harmonium or organ, and Vesper Preludes. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote Hin und zurück, which is an operatic sketch that uses a harmonium on the stage.

The Kronos Quartet produced an album called Early Music, with several pieces that feature a harmonium.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) was a harmonium virtuoso who also wrote pieces for the instrument.

Reed Organ Players

As the sources used reed organ and harmonium as synonyms, it was hard to distinguish harmonium from reed organ from melodeon, so here’s a nice list of modern folks who’ve used one or the other of them.

Timo Alakotila plays Nordic folk music, as does Milla Viljamaa and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan play Qawwali music (Sufi worship music) in Pakistan. And Sigfrid Karg-Elert was a German harmonium virtuoso.

Tori Amos played a harmonium during her Boys for Pele tour (1996). The Beatles used a harmonium in quite a few recordings, including Doctor Robert, the Inner Light, We Can Work it Out, Cry Baby, Rocky Raccoon, and the final chord in A Day in the Life. Pink Floyd used the harmonium on their The Final Cut album. Radiohead used an antique harmonium on their Motion Picture Soundtrack album on Kid A. They toured with a harmonium throughout 2001 until it broke at a show in Oxford England. Tom Waits plays a harmonium on his albums Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs. It also appears on Night on Earth, the soundtrack of an eponymous film. Neil Young plays Like a Hurricane on a harmonium.

Sources:

“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.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Sources:

“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.