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Explore the Harmonica

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Did You Know...

A harmonica is a free reed, musical wind instrument. It has multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end over an airway slot into which it can freely vibrate. The vibrating reeds repeatedly interrupts the airstream to produce sound.

Unlike most free reed instruments (such as reed organs, accordions, and melodicas), the harmonica lacks a keyboard. Instead, the player selects the notes by the placement of his or her mouth over the proper airways. These holes are usually made up of discrete holes in the front of the instrument. Each hole communicates with one or more reeds, depending on the type of harmonica. Because a reed mounted above a 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, primarily the chromatic harmonica, also include a spring-loaded button-actuated slide that, when depressed, redirects the airflow.

The harmonica is commonly used in blues and folk music, but also in jazz, classical music, country music, rock and roll, and pop music. Increasingly, the harmonica is finding its place in more electronically generated music, such as dance and hip-hop, as well as funk and acid jazz.

Especially in blues music, the harmonica has many names. Some of these are: mouth organ, mouth harp, Hobo Harp, French harp, harpoon, tin sandwich, blues harp, Mississippi saxophone, or simply harp, although it does have many more colloquial names such as gob iron.

Parts of the harmonica

The basic parts of the harmonica are the comb, reed-plates, and cover-plates.

Comb

The comb is the term for the main body of the instrument, named after the similarities between the simple harmonicas and a hair comb. Combs were traditionally made from wood, but they are now usually made from plastic (ABS) or metal. The comb contains the air chambers which cover the reeds. Some modern and experimental comb designs are very complex as they arranging how the air is directed.

Comb's material has traditionally been assumed to have an effect on the tone of the harmonica. However, several recent attempts at blind testing have not been able to show that people can hear a difference when comb material is the only variable, and the main advantage one comb material truly have over another one is usually its durability.[citation needed] In particular, a wooden comb can absorb moisture from the player's breath and contact with the tongue, causing the comb to expand slightly, making the instrument uncomfortable to play.[citation needed] Conversely, some players used to deliberately soak their wooden-combed hamonicas to cause a slight expansion which was intended to make the seal between the comb, reed plates and covers more airtight.[citation needed] More modern wooden-combed harmonicas however, are less prone to swelling and contracting.

Reed-plate

Reed-plate is the term for a grouping of several free-reeds in a single housing. The reeds are usually made of brass, but occasionally steel and aluminium have been used as well as plastic. These individual reeds are usually riveted to the reed-plate, but they may also be welded or screwed in place (a notable exception is the all-plastic harmonicas designed by Finn Magnus in the 1950s, where the reed and reed-plate were molded out of a single piece of plastic). Reeds fixed on the inside (within the comb's air chamber) of the reed-plate respond to pressure while those on the outside respond to suction. Most harmonicas are constructed with the reed-plates screwed or bolted to the comb or each other, however a few brands still use the traditional method of nailing the reed-plates to the comb.

Again, the Magnus design had the reeds, reed-plates and comb all out of plastic and either molded together or permanently glued together. Some experimental and rare harmonicas also have the reed-plates held in place by tension, such as the WWII era all-American models.

If the plates are bolted to the comb, it can be possible to replace the reed plates individually. This is useful, as the reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and certain notes of the scale can fail more quickly than others.

Cover plates

The cover-plates cover the reed-plates and are usually made of metal, although wood and plastic have also been used. As pointed out previously, the choice of these is extremely personal. As they project the sound, they determine the tonal quality of the harmonica. There two types: the traditional open designs of stamped metal or plastic are simply there to be held, while the enclosed design (such as Hohner Meisterklass and Super 64, Suzuki Promaster and SCX) offer a louder tonal quality. From these two, a few modern designs are spawned, such as the Hohner CBH-2016 chromatic and the Suzuki Overdrive diatonic, which have complex covers which allow for specific functions not usually available in the traditional design. Similarly, it was not unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to see harmonicas with special features on the covers such as bells which could be rung by pushing a button and the like.

Other parts

Windsavers are one-way valves made from very thin strips of plastic, knit paper, leather or teflon glued onto the reed-plate. They are typically found in Chromatic harmonicas, Chord harmonicas, and many Octave-tuned harmonicas. Windsavers are used when two reeds share a cell and leakage through the non-playing reed would be significant. For example, when a draw note is played, the valve on blow reed-slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. An exception is the recent Hohner XB-40 where valves are placed not to isolate single reeds but rather to isolate entire chambers from being active.

Mouthpiece

The mouthpiece is an object which is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player's mouth. This can be made integral with the comb (the diatonic harmonicas, the Hohner Chrometta), as part of the cover (as in Hohner's CX-12) or as a separate unit entirely, secured by screws, which is typical of Chromatics. In many harmonicas the mouthpiece is purely an ergonomic aide designed to make playing more comfortable, but in the traditional slider-based chromatic harmonica it is essential to the functioning of the instrument since it provides a groove for the slide.

Harmonica types

The harmonica brand that one chooses usually is based on one's ability to play, the pliability of the reeds, sound of the instrument, and, surprisingly, price. Many feel that the best harmonicas are more expensively priced, though many skilled players feel that price and quality are not related.

Chromatic harmonica

The Chromatic harmonica uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed-plate desired, which allows the musician to play any keys that he desired with only one harmonica. This harp can be used for any style, be it Celtic, Classical, Jazz, blues (commonly in third position), as well as many other styles. A modern example of its use across these styles is musician Philip Achille.

A tremolo harmonica

The tremolo harmonica's distinguishing feature is having two reeds per note, with one a bit sharp and the other a bit flat. This gives a unique wavering or warbling sound created by the two reeds being slightly out of tune with each other and the difference in their subsequent waveforms interacting with each other. The Asian version, which has all the notes on it, is the common variety employed in Asia, and is used in all East-Asian music, from rock to pop music.

Blues harp

The 10-hole, or richter tuned harmonica, is the most widely known type of 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. This is the type commonly used in blues, country and rock music. The reeds of Diatonic harmonicas produce the notes of the scale to which they are tuned. For example, a diatonic harmonica tuned to the key of C would produce the natural notes of the C scale without sharps and flats (picture the white keys on a piano, without the black keys). Each hole has two reeds; one plays when breath is exhaled (blow) and the other when inhaled (draw). The individual reeds are each tuned to play a different note on the scale.

There are other ways to get more notes on the 10-holed diatonic “Richter” tuned Harmonica. One of the specialties of such a small instrument is its ability to play far more than 19 notes. The 10-holed diatonic Harmonica has the ability to produce 42 notes, (including 4 repeats), ending up with a complete 3 chromatic octave range, plus an extra 2 half-steps on the high end. Doing this requires the use of special techniques such as bending and overblowing. this technique is used in many ways to produce many different effects. the most common of these being slurring (linking from a regular note in the scale to an overblow or overdraw) to the bent note, or playing straight into the note. See the article on Harmonica techniques for a more complete discussion.

Octave harmonica

Octave harmonicas have two reeds per hole. The two reeds are tuned to the same note a perfect octave apart. Many share their basic design with the tremolo harmonica explained above and are built upon this "Wiener system" of construction. Octave harmonicas also come in what is called the "Knittlinger system". In this design the top and bottom reed-plates contain all of the blow and draw notes for either to lower or higher pitched set of reeds. The comb is constructed so that the blow and draw reeds on each reed-plate are paired side-by-side in a single chamber in the same manner as on a standard diatonic but that the top and bottom pairs each have their own chamber. Thus, in a C harmonica the higher pitched C blow and D draw found in the first "hole" would be placed side-by-side on the upper reed-plate and share a single chamber in the comb and the lower pitched C blow and D draw would be placed side-by-side on the bottom reed-plate and share a single chamber directly below the higher pitched pair of reeds' chamber. Knittlinger octave harmonicas are also called "concert" harmonicas and are almost always tuned in a variation of the traditional major diatonic with chords tuning found in diatonic harmonicas. Octave harmonicas built in the "Wiener system" may be tuned either in this traditional method or in the same manner as the Asian tremolos mentioned above.

An interesting variation upon the Knittlinger octave harmonica is the so-called "half-concert" harmonica. This is not an octave harmonica at all, but rather a single-note diatonic harmonica which is built with a single reed-plate rather than the standard two--essentially it is one half of the standard octave harmonica.

Orchestral harmonicas

These harmonicas are primarily designed for use in ensemble playing.

Orchestral Melody harmonica

There are two kinds of orchestral melody harmonica: the most common is the Horn harmonicas, as called in Asia, which are mostly found in East Asia. These consist of a single large comb with blow only reed-plates on the top and bottom. Each reed sits inside a single cell in the comb, and the instrument mimics the layout of a piano or mallet instrument, with the natural notes of a C diatonic scale available from the lower reed-plate and the sharps/flats from the upper reed-plate in groups of two and three holes with gaps in-between (thus there is no E#/Fb hole nor a B#/Cb hole on the upper reed-plate). These are available in several pitch ranges, with the lowest pitched starting two-octaves below middle C and the highest beginning on middle C itself. These usually cover a two or three octave range. These are usually played in an East Asian harmonica orchestra, using these instruments instead of the chromatic harmonica, and often serve to function in place of brass section—hence it was called horn harmonica in Asia.

The other type of orchestral melodic harmonica is the Polyphonias, which are designed with all twelve chromatic notes laid out on the same row; usually, both blow and draw will have the same tone. This allows songs that require a rapid pace, such as Flight of the Bumble Bee, to be played (as one does not need to switch airflow), but more commonly it was used to make glissandos and other effects very easy to play--few acoustic instruments can play a chromatic glissando as fast as a Polyphonia.

Bass harmonica

The Bass harmonica consists of two separate combs joined together one atop the other with moveable connectors at their ends. These are all-blow instruments covering much the same range as the viola family Double Bass. Those made today are all octave tuned, in that each hole has two reeds one of which plays the bass note and the other a note an octave higher. The lower comb contains the notes of the C major diatonic scale, while the upper comb contains the notes of a C#(Db) diatonic scale.

Chord harmonica

The chord harmonica has 48 chords: major, seventh, minor, augmented and diminished for ensemble playing. It is laid out in four-note clusters, each sounding a different chord on inhaling or exhaling. Typically each hole has two reeds for each note, tuned to one octave of each other, but less expensive models often have only one reed per note.

In addition to these, quite a few orchestra harmonicas are also designed to serve both as a bass and chord harmonica, with bass notes next to chord groupings. There were also other chord harmonicas, such as Chordomonica (operate similar to a chromatic harmonica), and junior chord harmonicas (Typically provide 6 chords)

ChengGong Harmonica

A recent innovation in the harmonica is the ChengGong 程功 (a pun on the inventor's surname and 成功, or "success," pronounced "chenggong" in Mandarin Chinese) Harmonica, invented by Cheng Xuexue 程雪學 of China. It has two parts: the main body, and a sliding mouthpiece. The body is a 24 hole diatonic harmonica that starts from b2 to d6 (covering 3 octaves). Its 11-hole mouthpiece can slide along the front of the harmonica, which gives numerous chord choices and voicings (seven triads, three 6th chords, seven 7th chords, and seven 9th chords, for a total of 24 chords available). Yet, the ChengGong is still capable of playing single note melodies and double stops over a range of three diatonic octaves, all the while maintaining a small profile, not much larger than a 12-hole chromatic. Also, unlike conventional harmonicas, blowing and drawing produce the same notes. In this way, its tuning is closer to the note layout of a typical Asian tremolo harmonica or the Polyphonias. [1]

The Pitch Pipe

The pitch pipe is essentially a specialty harmonica which is designed not for playing music as such but for giving a reference pitch to singers and other instruments. Notably, the only difference between some early pitch-pipes and harmonicas is the name of the instrument, reflecting the maker's target audience.

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