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Harmonica

Harmonica

Background

The harmonica, or mouth organ, is a hand-held rectangular musical instrument. As the musician inhales and exhales into evenly spaced air channels, the metal reeds within produce musical tones. The length and thickness of the reed determines the note that is heard. Descended from the Jew's harp and Chinese sheng of ancient times, the harmonica has engendered various nicknames, including blues harp, pocket piano and Mississippi saxophone. Since its beginnings in the early 1800s, the harmonica has been used in variety of musical forms, from classical to folk to country to rock to blues to jazz.

History

Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact day that the hannonica was invented, the first patent was issued to the teenaged Christian Friedrich Buschmann of Thuringer (now Germany) for his aura, a 4 in (10 cm) mouth organ that featured 21 blow notes arranged chromatically. It was quickly imitated throughout Europe and went by many names, such as mundharmonika, mundaeoline, psallmelodikon and symphonium. In 1826, Joseph Richter, a Bohemian instrument maker created a variation that was to become the standard. Richter's version featured 10 holes with 20 reeds on two separate plates that allowed both blow notes and draw notes. The plates were mounted on either side of a cedar comb. He tuned it to a diatonic, or seven-note, scale.

Several decades later, a young German clockmaker named Matthias Hohner learned to make a harmonica and consequently changed professions. Starting his new company in his kitchen in 1857, Hohner turned out 650 harmonicas in his first year with the help of family members and one paid worker. In 1862, Hohner, an astute marketer who had his name engraved on the plates of his harmonicas, introduced the instrument to North America, where its portability and affordability made it a favorite of the Western cowboy. African-American blues musicians also found the harmonica an affordable alternative to a piano or horn. Sonny Terry, James Cotton, Charles Musselwhite, and William Clarke are just a few of the blues legends who have lent their talents to the harmonica.

The harmonica soon entered the main-stream. In the period just before World War II, boys' harmonica bands were a popular vaudeville act. Larry Adler made a name for himself playing the harmonica with major symphony orchestras. In the late 1940s, the three-man Harmonicats sold 20 million copies of their rendition of "Peg o' My Heart." At the beginning of the 1960s, a group of 105 amateur harmonica players in Levittown, Pennsylvania, dubbed themselves the "Largest Uniformed Harmonica Band in the United States." Borrowing heavily from the African-American blues legacy, numerous white rock-and-roll musicians picked up the harmonica. Folk singer Bob Dylan popularized the practice of placing the harmonica on a neck frame to free the hands for playing the guitar, piano, or other instrument at the same time.

Today, five major types of harmonicas are produced: diatonic, diatonic tremolo-tuned, diatonic octave-tuned, chromatic, and orchestral accompaniment. The single-reed diatonic harmonic is the most popular and can be heard in rock, country, blues, and folk music. It features 10 holes with 20 reeds, 10 for blow notes and 10 for draw notes. The tremolo has double holes, each of which contains a reed cut to the same key. Each hole allows both blow and draw notes. In the octave-tuned diatonic, the reeds in the double holes are an octave apart. Chromatic harmonicas play a 12-note octave, including all sharps and flats. The orchestral model can feature all blow notes or a combination of blow and draw notes. Some are designed to play chords.

Raw Materials

Originally, the body, or comb, of all harmonicas was constructed of wood. Now, most are made from injection-molded plastic. Some high-end models are made from metal alloys, lucite, or silver. Each of these materials produces a distinct type of sound. Marine band and blues harp types continue to be made from moisture-resistant soft wood. The semi-hardness of the wood produces a rich sound while resisting swelling.

Reeds are cut from precision-tapered strips of brass alloy (a mixture of copper and zinc) material. Reed and cover plates are also machined from brass.

Screws and rivets are used to fasten the comb, reeds, reed plate, and cover plate.

The Manufacturing
Process

While the individual parts are produced by machinery, the assembly is done by hand.

Creating the comb

  • 1 Wooden combs are cut from a block of wood. Channels are carved out in descending lengths across the comb. Plastic combs are injection molded. The plastic compound is heated to a semi-fluid state and then mechanically injected into a mold. The compound hardens quickly, the mold is popped open, and the new comb is expelled.

Making the reed plate and reeds

  • 2 The reed plate is stamped and machined, creating slits that correspond to the channels on the comb. Reeds are cut and tapered by machine. One end of each reed is riveted to the reed plate so that a reed lays over each slit. The opposite end of the reed is left free.

Tuning the reed plate

  • 3 The reed plate is manually tuned. The tuner strikes the appropriate tuning fork and then files each reed to the correct tone. Filing the base end lowers the pitch; filing the free end raises the pitch.

Attaching the reed plate to the comb

  • 4 The reed plate is attached to the comb with nails or screws. The assembly is done manually at a workbench similar to that used by a shoemaker. The nails are inserted into the holes with needle-nosed pliers and then tapped in gently with a small hammer.

Attaching the plate cover

  • 5 The plate cover, which has been machined, shaped, and stamped with the company name and harmonica type, is attached to the reed/comb assembly with screws or nails.

Packaging

  • 6 The harmonicas are inserted into boxes and packed for shipment to retailers.

The Future

In the twenty-first century, less of the assembly will be done manually as the process becomes more automated and calibrated by computers. Manufacturers claim that the computerized process will increase the life span of the reeds and produce a harmonica that is more airtight.

Where to Learn More

Periodicals

Chelminski, Rudolph. "Harmonicas are… Hooty, Wheezy, Twangy and Tooty." Smithsonian, November 1995.

Other

Hohner Homepage. http://www.hohnerusa.com/htnil/history.html (January 29, 1997).

MaryF.McNulty

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harmonica

harmonica:1 The simplest of the musical instruments employing free reeds, known also as the mouth organ or French harp. It was probably invented in 1829 by Friedrich Buschmann of Berlin, who called his instrument the Mundäoline. The major production of the instrument has been in Germany since the early 19th cent. The reeds are set in a small, narrow case of wood or metal. For each reed there is a hole, through which the player draws or blows air with the mouth. Commonly the instrument is diatonic, having a compass of about two octaves, but the comparatively few virtuoso harmonica players use larger instruments having the full chromatic scale. The low cost and very small size of the harmonica adapt it well to class instruction among school children, and it is a common instrument in folk, rock, blues, and other forms of popular music. 2 Musical glasses, introduced in Dublin in 1743 by Richard Pockrich, played upon in London by Gluck in 1746, and improved by Benjamin Franklin c.1761; also called the glass harmonica. Franklin's instrument, which he called an armonica, consisted of a series of glass bowls, graduated in size and fitting one inside another. They were supported by a horizontal spindle passing through all of the bowls. As the spindle was made to revolve by means of a lever, the edges of the bowls passed through a trough filled with water. Contact of the player's fingertip with the moistened revolving edges of the bowls produced a penetrating, ethereal sound. A later form of the instrument had a keyboard. Both Mozart and Beethoven, as well as a few lesser composers wrote works for it. The instrument and the music for it has enjoyed a minor renaissance since the 1980s. 3 Strips of metal or glass, played upon with hammers or, later, having a keyboard, as described by Berlioz in his treatise on instrumentation. Related to this obsolete form are the celesta and glockenspiel.

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harmonica

harmonica. Name given at different times to various mus. instrs. Today its prin. meaning is the mouth-organ, a small wind instr. invented in 1830s with metal reeds, one to each note, which is held against the lips and moved from side to side according to the note desired. The term also meant mus. glasses (see glass armonica).

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harmonica

har·mon·i·ca / härˈmänikə/ • n. a small rectangular wind instrument with a row of metal reeds along its length, held against the lips and moved from side to side to produce different notes by blowing or sucking. Also called mouth organ.

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harmonica

harmonica (mouth organ) Musical instrument consisting of a metal cassette containing metal reeds. The reeds are vibrated as the player blows or inhales through slots along one edge of the cassette.

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harmonica

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