The Harmonica: A Fascinating History For A Great Instrument

Brief History

Tablature harmonica notation was invented during the 19th century. Free-reed instruments were well known throughout Asia and somewhat known throughout Europe at that time. In 1820, free-reed instruments started being developed in Europe. Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann is often cited as the inventor of the harmonica, but other inventors developed similar instruments around the same time.

The first harmonica appeared in Vienna, and Richter tuning was a common feature from the start. By the late 19th century harmonicas had became a mass production market, with new designs such as the chromatic harmonica, the bass harmonica, and the chord harmonica coming on to the scene.

Harmonicas rapidly became popular in the United States when harmonica manufacturer Hohner shipped some harmonicas to his relatives in the states in 1857. President Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket while Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid played the harmonica. In the 1920s, the first recordings of harmonicas were made, primarily for the black and poor white markets down south, with solo recordings being made by Deford Bailey and duo recordings being made by guitarists Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, and Sonny Terry.

In the 1930s, the harmonica saw more respect as a musical instrument when it was utilized by famous composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Darius Milhaud and Arthur Benjamin for classical works of music. The 1950s saw the harmonica being used in blues music, during which several musicians such as Big Walter Horton and Stevie Wonder helped further develop the artistry of harmonica play.

Contemporary artists have continued to push the envelope in harmonica play, and the harmonica is now being integrated in to rock as well as blues music. The harmonica is also popular in Europe and Japan. Additionally, the harmonica has been employed in many pulmonary rehabilitation programs due to its resemblance to the kind of exercises used to rehabilitate COPD patients.

Every four years the World Harmonica Festival is held in Germany where the Hohner harmonica company is located. The Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival is also held regularly and was hosted by China in 2008. There is also a harmonica contest in Idaho every August called the Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest that has been running since 1989.

There are other free-reed instruments that have developed over the years alongside the harmonica. Some of these instruments are the concertina, the diatonic accordion, the chromatic accordion, and the melodica.

Harmonicas use tablature notation, which is a form of notation that indicates where the notes are played on the instrument as opposed to indicating pitches with circles and note heads printed on a staff (like standard notation). Tabulature makes it easier for beginners to learn to play the harmonica thanks to it indicating the placement of notes directly on the instrument.

No matter what style of harmonica you play, chances are you will enjoy the ease with which it can be learned, the exercise that comes with blowing and drawing on its chambers, and the pride in learning a new instrumental wonder.

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