What Is The Harmonica?

A harmonica can be defined as a small rectangular instrument consisting of free reeds that are set back in air holes, which are played by exhaling or inhaling into the air chambers. The instrument emits sound by the vibration of these reeds. A player changes the pitch and sound by either inhaling or exhaling through the hole.

Playing the harmonica is as simple as using the tongue to cover or uncover the holes while blowing into the instrument. The player can blow or draw over several holes at the same time. This is referred to as playing a chord. While playing this chord the player can cover one or several contiguous holes to avoid playing them.

More experienced players can take advantage of advanced techniques such as the overbend. The overbend is the process of playing a blade at a different and higher pitch than normal.

Harmonicas can have as many as 4 reeds for each air hole. A player selects which reed to use by moving a bar called a slide from side to side.

Harmonicas are categorized into two groups;

  1. chromatic

  2. diatonic

Chromatic harmonicas usually use a button-activated sliding bar to select between reeds in each hole. They can play any semitone over several octaves. These harmonicas are designed in a fashion that allows the player to play multiple notes. The diatonic harmonica is designed to play in only one key. This key is usually written on the top of the instrument.

History Of The Harmonica

Around 1820 harmonicas with a free reed design began being created in Europe and North America; however credit for the invention of the harmonica was not given until 1821 to a young man by the name of Christian Friedrich Buschmann when he registered the first European patent.

The harmonica first appeared in Vienna where harmonicas with chambers were sold before 1824. Richter tuning purchased a harmonica at an exhibition in 1824 and copied the instrument making some of the most important advancements in early harmonica design. He developed a modified harmonica that consisted of ten holes and twenty reeds in 1826. These harmonicas had separate reed plates mounted to a cedar comb. By 1827 they had produced hundreds of harmonicas.

Other countries soon followed to modify and create different variations of these harmonicas. As competition grew for harmonica makers, a clock maker in Germany surfaced with a new means to produce the instrument. Matthias Hohner used mass-produced wooden combs to construct his harmonicas making him the first mass-producer of the harmonica in 1857.

The harmonicas introduction to North America occurred shortly after Hohner started mass-producing his harmonicas. Hohner shipped some of his harmonicas to relatives that had migrated to the United States. The popularity of the harmonicas music grew rapidly propelling Hohner Company to its status as world leader in harmonicas. By 1887, Hohner was producing more than one million harmonicas annually and today produces over 90 different models with a variety of styles and tunings.


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