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16-hole chrom 10-hole diatonic.jpg
  • Wind
  • Free reed aerophone
  • Aerophone
Playing range
For 64-reeds (16-holes) chromatic harmonica: C below Middle C (C) to the D above C5; slightly over 4 octaves
Related instruments
accordion, melodica, harmonium, concertina, sheng, reed organ, Yu
More articles
List of harmonicists

A harmonica is a free reed wind instrument. It has multiple, variably-tuned brass or bronze reeds which are secured at one end over an airway slot in which they can freely vibrate. The vibrating reeds repeatedly interrupt 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 to be played by placing the mouth over the proper airways, usually 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 most commonly used in blues and American folk music, but is also used 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.

The harmonica has other nicknames, especially in blues music, including: mouth organ and blues mouth organ.

Parts of the harmonica

Comb and two reedplates.
Reed plate.
Reedplate mounted on the comb of a diatonic harmonica.

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


The comb is the term for the main body of the instrument which contains the air chambers which cover the reeds. The term comb originates from the similarities between simple harmonicas and a hair comb. Harmonica combs were traditionally made from wood, but now are usually made from plastic (ABS) or metal. Some modern and experimental comb designs are very complex in the way that they direct the air.

Comb material was assumed to have an effect on the tone of the harp. While the comb material does have a slight influence over the sound of the harmonica, the main advantage of a particular comb material over another one is usually its durability. In particular, a wooden comb can absorb moisture from the player's breath and contact with the tongue. This causes the comb to expand slightly, making the instrument uncomfortable to play.

An even more serious problem with wood combs, especially in chromatic harmonicas (with their thin dividers between chambers) is that the combs shrink over time. Comb shrinkage can lead to cracks in the combs due to the combs being held immobile by nails, resulting in disabling leakage. Much effort is devoted by serious players to restoring wood combs and sealing leaks. Some players used to soak wooden-combed harmonicas ( diatonics, without windsavers) in water to cause a slight expansion which was intended to make the seal between the comb, reed plates and covers more airtight. Modern wooden-combed harmonicas are less prone to swelling and contracting.


Reed-plate is the term for a grouping of several reeds in a single housing. The reeds are usually made of brass, but steel, aluminium and plastic are occasionally used. Individual reeds are usually riveted to the reed-plate, but they may also be welded or screwed in place. Reeds fixed on the inside (within the comb's air chamber) of the reed-plate respond to blowing, 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. A few brands still use the traditional method of nailing the reed-plates to the comb. Some experimental and rare harmonicas also have had the reed-plates held in place by tension, such as the WWII era all-American models. If the plates are bolted to the comb, the reed plates can be replaced individually. This is useful because the reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and certain notes of the scale can fail more quickly than others.

A notable exception to the traditional reed-plate design 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. The Magnus design had the reeds, reed-plates and comb made of plastic and either molded or permanently glued together.

Cover plates

Cover plates cover the reed-plates and are usually made of metal, though wood and plastic have also been used. The choice of these is personal - because they project sound, they determine the tonal quality of the harmonica. There are two types of cover plates: traditional open designs of stamped metal or plastic, which are simply there to be held, and enclosed designs (such as Hohner Meisterklass and Super 64, Suzuki Promaster and SCX), which offer a louder tonal quality. From these two basic types, a few modern designs have been created, such as the Hohner CBH-2016 chromatic and the Suzuki Overdrive diatonic, which have complex covers that allow for specific functions not usually available in the traditional design. 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.

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 the blow reed-slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. An exception to this is the recent Hohner XB-40 where valves are placed not to isolate single reeds but rather to isolate entire chambers from being active.


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

Amplification devices

While amplification devices are not part of the harmonica itself, since the 1950s, many blues harmonica players have amplified their instrument with microphones and tube amplifiers. One of the early innovators of this approach was Marion "Little Walter" Jacobs, who played the harmonica near a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers. This gave his harmonica tone a "punchy" mid-range sound that could be heard above an electric guitar. As well, tube amplifiers produce a natural "overdrive" when they are turned up, which adds body and fullness to the sound. Little Walter also cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone.

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 price. Although many feel that the best harmonicas are more expensively priced, skilled players often feel that price and quality are not related.

Chromatic harmonica

Hohner Super Chromonica, a typical 12-hole chromatic.

The chromatic harmonica usually uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed-plate, although there was one design, the "Machino-Tone", which controlled airflow by means of a lever-operated movable flap on the rear of the instrument. In addition, there is a "hands-free" modification of the Hohner 270 (12-hole) in which the player shifts the tones by moving the mouthpiece up and down with the lips, leaving the hands free to play another instrument. While the Richter-tuned 10-hole chromatic is intended to be played in only one key, the 12-, 14-, and 16-hole models (which are tuned to equal temperament) allow the musician to play in any key desired with only one harmonica. This harp can be used for any style — Celtic, classical, jazz, blues (commonly in third position) — as well as many other styles.

Diatonic harmonicas

Strictly speaking, "diatonic" denotes any harmonica that is designed for playing in only one key (though the standard "Richter-tuned" diatonic can be played in other keys by forcing its reeds to play tones that are not part of its basic scale; see "Blues harp" below). Depending on the region of the world, "diatonic harmonica" may mean either the tremolo harmonica (in East Asia) or blues harp (In Europe and North America). Invented in the 19th century by Natalie Ann Cummins. Other diatonic harmonicas include octave harmonica.

Tremolo harmonica

A tremolo harmonica.

The tremolo harmonica's distinguishing feature is that it has two reeds per note, with one a bit sharp and the other a bit flat. This provides 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 ( Beat (acoustics)). The Asian version, which has all the notes on it, is used in all East-Asian music, from rock to pop music.

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 are the Horn harmonicas that are most often 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. One version mimics the layout of a piano or mallet instrument, with the natural notes of a C diatonic scale in the lower reed-plate and the sharps/flats in the upper reed-plate in groups of two and three holes with gaps in between like the black keys of a piano (thus there is no E#/Fb hole nor a B#/Cb hole on the upper reed-plate). Another version has one "sharp" reed directly above its "natural" on the lower plate, with the same number of reeds on both plates. "Horn harmonicas" are available in several pitch ranges, with the lowest pitched starting two octaves below middle C and the highest beginning on middle C itself; they usually cover a two or three octave range. They are chromatic instruments and are usually played in an East Asian harmonica orchestra instead of the " push-button" chromatic harmonica that is more common in the European/American tradition. Their reeds are often larger, and the enclosing "horn" gives them a different timbre, so that they often function in place of a brass section. In the past, they were referred to as horn harmonicas.

The other type of orchestral melodic harmonica is the Polyphonia, (though some are marked "Chromatica"). These have all twelve chromatic notes laid out on the same row. In most cases, both blow and draw have the same tone, though the No. 7 is blow only, and the No. 261, also blow only, has two reeds per hole, tuned an octave apart (all these designations refer to products of M. Hohner). The Polyphonia is often thought to allow the easy playing of pieces such as "Flight of the Bumblebee" (because it is not necessary to switch airflow). However, Dan LeMaire-Bauch disputes this, pointing out that all three players known to him who have played "Bee", (Victor "Panky" Paul, Jia Yi He, and himself) have used 16-hole "push-button" chromatics; nevertheless, in his relentless pursuit of further harmonica knowledge, he would welcome any information on player(s) who do "The Bumblebee" correctly, note-for-note, on a Polyphonia. Dan's performance does however include one 24-note phrase on a No. 7 Poly (pronounced "polly"). The Poly was commonly 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 movable connectors at their ends. These are all-blow instruments covering much the same range as the viol family double bass. Today, bass harmonicas are all octave tuned, which means 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 up to 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. However, less expensive models often have only one reed per note.

Quite a few orchestra harmonicas are also designed to serve as both bass and chord harmonica, with bass notes next to chord groupings. There are also other chord harmonicas, such as the Chordomonica (which operates similar to a chromatic harmonica), and the junior chord harmonicas (which typically provides 6 chords).

ChengGong harmonica

A recent harmonica innovation 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. Unlike conventional harmonicas, blowing and drawing produce the same notes because its tuning is closer to the note layout of a typical Asian tremolo harmonica or the Polyphonias.

The pitch pipe

The pitch pipe is essentially a specialty harmonica which is designed for providing a reference pitch to singers and other instruments. The only difference between some early pitch-pipes and harmonicas is the name of the instrument, which reflected the maker's target audience.

Harmonica techniques

Techniques available for the harmonica are numerous. Some are used to provide additional tonal dynamics, while others are used to increase playing ability. Using these techniques can change the harmonica from a diatonic instrument that can play one key properly into a versatile instrument. Some techniques used include: bending, overbending, overdrawing, position playing and vibrato.

'Vibrato' is a technique commonly used while playing the harmonica and many other instruments, notably string instruments, to give the note a 'shaking' sound. This technique can be accomplished in a number of ways. The most common way is to change how the harmonica is held. For example, by opening and closing your hands around the harmonica very rapidly you achieve the vibrato effect. Another way is to use a 'head shaking' technique, frequently used in blues harmonica, in which the player moves the lips between two holes very quickly. This gives a quick shaking technique that is slightly more than vibrato and achieves the same aural effect on sustained notes.

In addition to the 19 notes readily available on the diatonic harmonica, players can play other notes by adjusting their embouchure and forcing the reed to resonate at a different pitch. This technique is called "bending", a term borrowed from guitarists, who literally "bend" a string in order to create subtle changes in pitch. "Bending" also creates the glissandos characteristic of much blues harp and country harmonica playing. Bends are essential for most blues and rock harmonica due to the soulful sounds the instrument can bring out. The famous "wail" of the blues harp typically required bending. In the 1970s, Howard Levy developed the "overbending" technique (also known as "overblowing" and "overdrawing".) Overbending, combined with bending, allowed players like to play the entire chromatic scale.

In addition to playing the diatonic harmonica in its original key, it is also possible to play it in other keys by playing in other "positions", using different keynotes. Using just the basic notes on the instrument would mean playing in a specific mode for each position. Harmonica players (especially blues players) have developed a set of terminology around different "positions" which can be somewhat confusing to other musicians.

Harmonica players who amplified their instrument with microphones and tube amplifiers, such as blues harp players, also have a range of techniques which exploit the properties of the microphone and the amplifier, such as changing the way the hands are cupped his hands around the instrument and the microphone or rhythmically breathing or chanting into the microphone while playing.


The harmonica was developed in Europe in the early part of the 19th century, during a period of intense interest in free reed instruments. Free reed instruments like the sheng were fairly common throughout East Asia for centuries and were relatively well-known in Europe for some time. Around 1820, there was an explosion of new free reed designs in Europe and North America. While Christian Friederich Ludwig Buschmann is often cited as the inventor of the harmonica in 1821, it is almost certain that the instrument was simultaneously developed by several inventors working independently. Mouth-blown free reed instruments appeared in the United States, the United Kingdom and in Europe at roughly the same time.

Early harmonicas

The harmonica first appeared in Vienna, where harmonicas with chambers were sold before 1824 (see also Anton Reinlein and Anton Haeckl). Richter tuning was in use nearly from the beginning. In Germany, Mr. Meisel of Geschichte des Akkordeonbaus in Klingenthal, Schwarzmeisel and Langhammer, bought a harmonica with chambers (Kanzellen) at the Exhibition in Braunschweig in 1824. He and Langhammer in Graslitz copied the instruments; by 1827 they had produced hundreds of harmonicas. Many others followed in Germany and also nearby in what would later become Czechoslovakia. In 1829, Johann Wilhelm Rudolph Glier, also began making harmonicas. In 1830, Christan Messner, a cloth maker and weaver from Trossingen, copied a harmonica his neighbour had brought from Vienna. He had such success that eventually his brother and some relatives also started to make harmonicas. From 1840 onwards, his nephew Christian Weiss was also involved in the business.

By 1855, there were at least three registered harmonica-making businesses in existence: C. A. Seydel Söhne, Christian Messner & Co., and Württ. Harmonikafabrik Ch. WEISS. Currently, only C.A. Seydel is still in business.

Owing to competition between the harmonica factories in Trossingen and Klingenthal, machines were invented to punch the covers for the reeds. In 1857, Matthais Hohner, a clockmaker from Trossingen, started producing harmonicas, eventually to become the first person to mass-produce them. He was the first to order the wooden comb that goes in the centre of the instrument from other firms which machine-cut the parts. By 1868, he could deliver his first orders to the United States.

By the 1820s, the diatonic harmonica had largely reached its modern form. Other types followed soon thereafter, including the various tremolo and octave harmonicas. By the late 19th century, harmonica production was a big business, having evolved from a handcraft into mass-production with figures well into the millions, a market which continues to expand. New designs were still developed in the 20th century, including the chromatic harmonica, first made by Hohner in 1924, the bass harmonica, and the chord harmonica. In the 21st century, radical new designs are still being introduced into the market, such as the Suzuki Overdrive and Hohner XB-40.

Diatonic harmonicas were designed primarily for the playing of German and other European folk musics and have succeeded well in those styles. Possibly unforeseen by its makers, the basic design and tuning proved adaptable to other types of music such as the blues, country, old-time and more. The harmonica was a success almost from the very start of production, and while the centre of the harmonica business has shifted from Germany, the output of the various harmonica manufacturers is still very high. Major companies are now found in Germany ( Seydel, Hohner - once the dominant manufacturer in the world, producing some 20 million harmonicas alone in 1920 when German manufacturing totalled over 50 million harmonicas), Japan ( Suzuki, Tombo, Yamaha), China (Huang, Leo Shi, Suzuki, Hohner) and Brasil (Hering). Recently, responding to increasingly demanding performance techniques, the market for high quality instruments has grown, resulting in a resurgence of hand-crafted harmonicas catering to those wanting the best, without the compromises inherent in mass manufacturing.

Europe and North America

Early use

Shortly after Hohner began manufacturing harmonicas in 1857, he shipped some to relatives who had emigrated to the United States. Its music rapidly became popular, and the country became an enormous market for Hohner's goods. President Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, and harmonicas provided solace to soldiers on both the Union and Confederate sides of the American Civil War. Frontiersmen Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid played the instrument, and it became a fixture of the American musical landscape.

The first recordings of harmonicas were made in the U.S. in the 1920s. These recordings are included 'race-records', intended for the black market of the southern states with solo recordings by DeFord Bailey, duo recordings with a guitarist Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry, as well as hillbilly styles recorded for white audiences, by Frank Hutchison, Gwen Foster and several other musicians. There are also recordings featuring the harmonica in jug bands, of which the Memphis Jug Band is the most famous. But the harmonica still represented a toy instrument in those years and was associated with the poor. It is also during those years that musicians started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the 2nd position, or cross-harp.

1950s Blues players

The harmonica then made its way with the blues and the black migrants to the north, mainly to Chicago but also to Detroit, St. Louis and New York. The music played by the Afro-Americans started increasingly electric use amplification for the guitar, blues harp, double bass, and vocals. Rice Miller, better known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, is one of the most important harmonicists of this era. Using a full blues band, he became one of the most popular acts in the South due to his daily broadcasts on the 'King Biscuit Hour', originating live from Helena, Arkansas. He also helped make popular the cross-harp technique, opening the possibilities of harp playing to new heights. This technique has now become one of the most important blues harmonica techniques.

But Williamson was not the only innovator of his time. A young harmonicist by the name of Marion " Little Walter" Jacobs would completely revolutionize the instrument. He had the idea of playing the harmonica near a microphone (typically a "Bullet" microphone marketed for use by radio taxi dispatchers, giving it a "punchy" mid-range sound that can be heard above radio static, or an electric guitar). He also cupped his hands around the instrument, tightening the air around the harp, giving it a powerful, distorted sound, somewhat reminiscent of a saxophone. This technique, combined with a great virtuosity on the instrument made him arguably the most influential harmonicist in history.

Little Walter's only contender was perhaps Big Walter Horton. Relying less on the possibilities of amplification (although he made great use of it) than on sheer skill, Big Walter was the favored harmonicist of many Chicago leaders, including Willie Dixon. He graced many record sides of Dixon's in the mid-fifties with extremely colorful solos, using the full register of his instrument as well as some chromatic harmonicas. A major reason he is less known than Little Walter is because of his taciturn personality, his inconsistency, and his incapacity for holding a band as a leader. Horton, also known as "Shakey," was also a player on arguably the most exciting 12 bars of recorded harp on the classic Jimmie Rodgers "Walkin' By Myself" on Chess (1957).

Other great harmonicists have graced the Chicago blues records of the 1950s. Howlin' Wolf is often overlooked as a harp player, but his early recordings demonstrate great skill, particularly at blowing powerful riffs with the instrument. Sonny Boy Williamson II used the possibilities of hand effects to give a very talkative feel to his harp playing. A number of his compositions have also become standards in the blues world. Williamson had a powerful sound and extended his influence on the young British blues rockers in the 1960s, recording with Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds and appearing on live British television. Stevie Wonder taught himself harmonica at age 5 and plays the instrument on many of his recordings. Jimmy Reed played harmonica on most of his iconic blues shuffle recordings.

1960s and 1970s Blues players

The 1960s and 1970s saw the harmonica become less prominent, as the overdriven electric lead guitar became the dominant instrument for solos. Paul Butterfield is perhaps the most well known harp player of the era in the blues arena. Heavily influenced by Little Walter, he pushed further the virtuosity on the harp. However, he rapidly fell into the use of drugs and alcohol and, after his first four albums, his career stagnated.

Two journeymen Chicago harmonica players were perhaps the most regarded of this era - both associated with the Muddy Waters Band, and both featured on the classic Vanguard release "Chicago: The Blues Today! Vols 1-3" James Cotton and Junior Wells. Cotton, still playing in 2006 although with greatly diminished vocal powers, was the most energetic harp player of his time and specialized in slow, magnificent note-bends, along with vocals, heavily influenced by Bobby "Blue" Bland. A respected blues singer, his recordings and live playing with his partner, blues guitarist Buddy Guy, defined the sixties and seventies blues scene (for a detailed account of their live performances, read "Satchmo Blows Up the World" by Penny M. Von Eschen, an account of the State Department tours that Junior and Buddy were involved in during this time).

Bob Dylan also famously played his harmonica to add a touch of blues to his folk and rock sound during this era. Dylan was known for placing his harmonicas in a brace so that he could simultaneously blow the harp and play his guitar. Van Morrison, a long-time harmonica player, first played the instrument onstage in 1963 during a performance of Sonny Boy Williamson II's song "Elevate Me Mama". In 1965, when in London with his Them band and staying at the Royal Hotel, Morrison would run errands for Little Walter for harmonica playing tips.

George "Mojo" Buford, Jerry Portnoy, Lazy Lester, Corky Siegel, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Taj Mahal, Slim Harpo , Al "Blind Owl" Wilson of Canned Heat, John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful (whose father was also a harmonica star in the Larry Adler classical harmonica days), and others all contributed originality and creativity to the recorded history of the blues harmonica. Many rock enthusiasts are heavily sentimental about the brief recorded harmonica life of Beatle John Lennon, who played it on such early hits as " Love Me Do" and " I Should Have Known Better". Lennon used the instrument in his solo career on songs such as " Oh Yoko!."

Recently, newer harp players have had major influence on the sound of the harmonica. Heavily influenced by the electric guitar sound, John Popper of Blues Traveler, electric solos are played at a breakneck speed. He is widely credited with many innovations in harmonica playing, such as playing through guitar effects. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine has also demonstrated the ability to play the harmonica on an electric guitar through pedal use. Blackfoot, an all Native American band, used the harmonica in one specific song, the Train Song, to simulate a train whistle and track. Blackfoot also utilizes the harmonica in other blues/rock songs, as well do many other bands and artists.

2000s Blues players

Contemporary harmonicists Howard Levy, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, Olivier Poumay, Frederic Yonnet and John Popper emulate Little Walter. Levy explored and pioneered the over blow technique in the early seventies, which enables the diatonic harmonica to play full chromatic scales across three octaves, while retaining the particular sound of the harp. The over blow technique was first recorded in 1927 by Blues Birdhead (real name James Simons). Overblowing has been displayed more and more in the 1990s with the emergence of players like Howard Levy, Carlos del Junco, Adam Gussow, Chris Michalek, and Otavio Castro, and players like Jason Ricci are starting to integrate it in a more blues or rock oriented music.

Other styles and regions

European harmonica player Philip Achille, who performs Irish, Classical, Jazz, Qawali and sufi music, has won jazz competitions and his classical performances have led to appearances on the BBC as well as ITV and Channel 4. In France, Nikki Gadout has become well known, and in Germany, Steve Baker and René Giessen (who played the title melody of the Winnetou-movies) are well respected. The Brazilian Flávio Guimarãe performs a variety of styles. In Nashville it is P. T. Gazell and Charlie McCoy, an American music harmonicist. In Irish circles, it is James Conway. Peter "Madcat" Ruth maintains an active website that links to the sites of contemporary players around the world. Wade Schuman, founder of the group Hazmat Modine, has fused overblowing with older traditional styles and middle European harmonies. Levy plays one-handed piano and harmonica together in unison or harmony, performing bebop and world music.

Southeast Asia

Development in Hong Kong and Mainland China

Harmonica music started to develop in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Individual tremolo harmonica players from China moved to Hong Kong to set up different harmonica organizations such as The Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra (中華基督教青年會口琴樂隊) and China Harmonica Society (中國口琴社). Heart String Harmonica Society was another organization set up by the then sole agency of Hohner in Hong Kong, W.S. Shirly & Co.

In the 1950s, other than tremolo harmonica, chromatic harmonica became popular in Hong Kong. Prominent harmonica players Larry Adler and John Sebastian were invited to perform in Hong Kong. Local players such as Lau Mok (劉牧) and Fung On (馮安) were also devoted to the promotion of the chromatic harmonica. In the Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra, Fung On gradually replaced tremolo and diatonic harmonicas with the chromatic harmonica.

The symphonic orchestration of the Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra started in the 1960s. The goals were to enhance the tone colour and the volume and to perform pieces composed for a symphony orchestra. In the mid-60s, the Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra had developed into one with about 100 members. Aimed at imitating the symphonic orchestration of the western orchestra; a number of traditional instruments in a western orchestra were replaced by various types of harmonica: violin and viola were replaced by 12-hole and 16-hole chromonicas; cello by chord harmonica, contra bass and octave bass; double bass by octave bass; flute by pipe soprano; clarinet by pipe alto; trumpet by horn soprano; trombone by horn alto; oboe by melodica soprano; English horn by melodica alto; French horn by melodica professional. Simultaneously, double bass, accordion, piano, and percussion like timpani and xylophone were also used.

The 1970s was regarded as the flourishing period in the development of harmonica music in Hong Kong. Haletone Harmonica Orchestra was set up at Wong Tai Sin Community Centre. Fung On and others continued to teach harmonica and set up harmonica orchestras in local secondary schools such as Hotung Secondary School, King's College, Kiangsu-Chekiang College, Queen's College, St. Paul's College, St. Paul's Co-educational College.

In the 1980s, the number of harmonica learners decreased steadily, the result being that harmonica music in Hong Kong did not grow notably.

In the 1990s, however, the development of harmonica music flourished again. Harmonica players in Hong Kong began to participate in international harmonica competitions, including the World Harmonica Festival in Germany and the Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival in different Asian cities.

In the 2000s, the Hong Kong Harmonica Association (H.K.H.A.) (香港口琴協會) was established. The arrangement of its orchestras – the H.K.H.A. Harmonica Orchestra and the H.K.H.A. St. James' Settlement Junior Harmonica Orchestra – largely follows that of the Chinese Y.M.C.A. Harmonica Orchestra. It is evident that over the last forty years, the symphonic orchestration of harmonica music remained, in principle, the same. Put differently, the influence of Fung On in the symphonic orchestration of harmonica music in Hong Kong has been sustained for nearly half a decade.

Overall, Hong Kong can be seen as the forerunner of the formation of symphonic orchestration of harmonica music around the world. In the closing ceremony of the World Harmonica Festival in Trossingen, Germany in 2005, a European adjudicator told Dr. Ho Pak Cheong (何百昌醫生), the founding president of the H.K.H.A., that the Hong Kong delegation had brought a new world to the harmonica. In the Festival, the delegation was awarded first place in the categories of Orchestra, and School Orchestra; the distinctive characters of the H.K.H.A. harmonica orchestras seem to be recognized by overseas, renowned, harmonica players.

Development in Japan and Taiwan

In 1898, the harmonica was brought to Japan; there, the Japanese were more interested in the sound of the Tremolo; however after about 30 years, they became dissatisfied with the richter-based layout of the tremolo harmonica, and thus developed the scale tuning, as well as the semitone harmonicas, in order to be able to perform Japanese folk songs. During sometime in 1924 and 1933, it was brought to other places in East Asia.

The history of the harmonica in Taiwan began around 1945, due to the influence of numerous harmonica experts, as well as versatility and cheap prices of the harmonica. It became one of the standard instruments on the island, being treated as a serious instrument during its peak at the 1980s — more so than Europe and America, where it was often associated as a blues-only instrument. However, as the western lifestyle began to spread, as well as an increase in living standards, many instruments that were once too expensive to buy could be bought by the Taiwanese. Additionally, due to many schools of methodologies on the harmonica, the harmonica as an instrument almost faded to obscurity in the 90s. In order to raise the appeal of the harmonica back to it what it once was, numerous harmonica lovers in Taiwan began to promote the harmonica heavily, starting with the introduction of harmonicas and methodology that are popular in the Western world (eg. Chromatic and Diatonic harmonicas), as well as participating in numerous international competitions. In 1993, the Yellowstone Orchestra won the first gold in an international harmonica competition. However, to the disappointment of many harmonica players, the resources for education are severely lacking, and many materials are not much different from those that were created 20 years ago.

Medical use

"Playing" the harmonica requires inhaling and exhaling strongly against resistance. This action helps develop a strong diaphragm and deep breathing using the entire lung volume. Pulmonary specialists have noted that playing the harmonica resembles the kind of exercise used to rehabilitate COPD patients such as using a PFLEX inspiratory muscle trainer or the inspiratory spirometer. Learning to play a musical instrument also offers motivation in addition to the exercise component. Many pulmonary rehabilitation programs therefore have begun to incorporate the harmonica.


A big harmonica competition is held in the autumn every four years in Trossingen, Germany, home of the Hohner harmonica company. The last World Harmonica Festival was in 2005 and - if all goes well - the next will be in 2009. However, there is a Harmonica Masters Workshop held every year.

Another international harmonica event is held in the summer every two years in cities in the Asia Pacific Region, which is called Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival. The next festival is to be held in summer 2008 in Hangzhou, China.

In Hong Kong, Schools Music Festival is held every year for school students to compete in different music classes. Harmonica classes include band for primary and secondary schools, ensemble for secondary school, duet for secondary school, solo (junior, intermediate, and senior), and concert work (open).

Every August there is a harmonica contest in Idaho. The contest has been running for eighteen years since 1989. The contest is held in Yellow Pine about 150 miles outside of Boise, Idaho and is called the Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest.

Related instruments

The concertina, diatonic and chromatic accordions and the melodica are all free-reed instruments which were developed alongside the harmonica. Indeed, the similarities between harmonicas and so-called "diatonic" accordions or melodeons is such that in German the name for the former is "Mundharmonika" and the later "Handharmonika", translated simply as "mouth harmonica" and "hand harmonica". The harmonica shares similarities to all other free-reed instruments by virtue of the method of sound production.

There also exists the unrelated glass harmonica, which is often confused with being a harmonica made of glass. In fact, it is a musical instrument formed of a nested set of graduated glass cups mounted sideways on an axle and partially immersed in water. It is played by touching the rotating cups with wetted fingers, causing them to vibrate.

Harmonica events

  • World Harmonica Festival
  • Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival

Famous harmonicists

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