A Quick History of the Harmonica

The harmonica is a free-reed wind musical instrument with Asian roots before it began its circulation in neighbouring countries, and eventually, across the globe. Its contemporary form consists of free metal reeds fixed in slots in a small wooden frame and enclosed with metal. Through two parallel wind channel rows, the wind from your mouth supplies the mechanic that produces the harmonica sound.

By blowing and sucking alternately, you can obtain the diatonic (seven-note) scale notes. The position of the reeds gets its output from the alternate wind flow directions. One way to play a character through the harmonica is by puckering the lips. This way, you single out your desired mouth hole in the organ.

Another method is by covering unwanted gaps using your tongue. However, musicians consider this as a more advanced technique. What's most interesting about this is that you can sound multiple notes at a time.

Meanwhile, chromatic (twelve-note) scale models operate using your fingers to select either of the reed sets tuned one semitone apart. Harmonica bands have bass models as well, with its compass ranging from two to four octaves.

Now that you've read a brief overview of what a harmonica is and how it sounds, let's dive into the vibrant, multinational harmonica origins.

Harmonica Origins - From China to Germany

The history of the harmonica traces back to 3000 B.C. China where Emperor Nyn-Kwya invented a free-reed instrument known as the Sheng. Considered as the prototype for the modern harmonica, the Sheng features a bamboo tube bundle fixed into a curving pipe. It contains a metal strip flexible enough to flap up and down as you blow through its holes. This dynamic is how the musical harmonica tones are created.

However, some historians counter this story. They believe that Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, a Dutch physician and physicist, should take credit for the first harmonica. In 1780, Kratzenstein employed the free-reed in creating a device for resembling human speech. Its aim was to better understand the voice mechanics of man. The 'talking machine,' as he referred to it, is the size of an upright piano.

The real story of the first harmonica might have been lost in the stories. What’s more important is that it prevailed as an eminent part of the music industry throughout the times. In the 18th century, tradesmen among travellers imported the Sheng to Europe. It is where the free-reed principle birthed the idea of creating the reed organ, the accordion, the concertina, the saxophone, and of course, the harmonica.

Modernization of the instrument began in 1821 when Christian Bushman patched fifteen pitch pipes together to create an odd organ. The German clockmaker then started producing the paraphernalia as a sideline among his colleagues and competitors. But then, a German clock salesman named Matthias Hohner started manufacturing the harmonica on a large scale in 1821. It immediately scaled into mass production in the country.

Questions of who invented the harmonica and when was the harmonica invented never got a clear answer then. But despite the confusion in the harmonica origins, the wind instrument continued to be a timeless piece of art as it rose to the height of modern music.

A Rising Star as a Blues Instrument

By the period of the American Civil War, the harmonica set ground in the United States. Numerous soldiers of either side played the famed instrument. That's no surprise at all given its low price, ease in learning and playing, and how they can fit easily in the players’ pockets. The mouth organ first gained hype through fiddle tunes, folk songs, hymns, and marches, before it gleamed its potential as a blues instrument.

John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson rose to fame in the 1930s-40s with a harmonica in hand and the blues music in the air. Not too long after World War II, Chicago gained its reputation as the major centre for blues. People consider Little Walter as the greatest blues harmonica player and acknowledged his death in 1968 to be a tragic day in the history of the harmonica.

A Mouth Organ in Modern Music

True to its greatness, the harmonica went far and beyond as a blues instrument. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan's folk music introduced the timeless organ to the masses. Some of the great players of more recent years were Kim Wilson and Rod Piazza, as they carried on the blues harmonica legacy.

And with the passing of time, more exciting harmonica styles grew, thanks to the contributions of players like John Pepper and Jason Ricci. Other famous musicians like John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Neil Young also leveraged the mouth organ in rock and roll.

Little Walter's 'Juke' was also hailed as the national anthem of blues harmonica. But if you're looking for more recent song releases featuring the harmonica, check out Taylor Swift's "I Bet You Think About Me" or Pitbull's "Timber."

It may seem that the United States became home to most of the greatest harmonica players throughout history. However, there's an even more significant player in helping the world get to know the wonder of the harmonica. Thanks to the internet, the next generation of harmonica players could come from anywhere.

And you could be the next greatest harmonica player of all time! The question is, do you have the best harmonica that you could possibly have to hone your talents?

Where to Find the Best Harmonica for You in Australia

In choosing the perfect instrument for your practice or on-stage performance, you need to ensure that you have the best in the market. Melbourne Music Centre Australia is your go-to for musical instruments and accessories.

Check out our wind instruments catalogue for affordable and good quality harmonicas. We also have an all-inclusive collection of melodicas, accordions, recorders, jaw harps, and accessories. Do you need expert advice and assistance? Contact us and to get in touch with our friendly, all-musicians staff!