Also:       harmonica á bouche      Mundharmonika      armonica a bocca      mouth organ      mouth harp      

Title: Sonny Terry, The Folkways Years, 1944-1963--A Man Is Nothing But A Fool, by Sonny Terry; Sonny Terry, harmonica, Brownie McGhee, guitar, Coyal McMahan, maracas. Label: Smithsonian Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD SF 40033. Track: 14.

Title: Iya Hamba! South African Country and Small Town Sounds--Zulaleke Mubemi; Nqwame Mbongtyi, harmonica. Label: Original Music. Format: CD. Catalogue#: OMCD 003. Track: 4.

Title: Works for Harmonica and Orchestra--Caprice, from Five Pieces, by Gordon Jacobs; Tommy Reilly, harmonica, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, conductor. Label: Chandos. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CHAN 8617. Track: 9.

Contextual Associations

The harmonica is a free-reed aerophone developed in mid-19th century Germany. It has become a popular instrument on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, incorporated primarily, although not exclusively, into folk and popular music traditions. The first audio clip illustrates the utilization of the harmonica into one stylistic genre of American music, the blues. Like many instruments, the harmonica has traveled far and wide in the hands of sailors, soldiers and settlers and in the process it has been introduced to musicians in other cultures who in turn have adapted the instrument to their own sensibilities. The second audio clip, recorded in 1950s South Africa, illustrates one such adaptation. A few ‘academic’ composers have created a small repertoire of works, even a few concertos, for the harmonica (third audio clip).


Of the six harmonicas pictured in the gallery, the first five are diatonically tuned and the sixth is chromatically tuned. At the core of any harmonica is a thin rectangular-cube-shaped body the top and bottom faces of which are metal reed plates separated from one another by one or two rows of small wind channels the partitions of which are made from wood. Each wind channel has an open and a closed end, the open ends (called ‘holes’) located along one of the long edges of an instrument’s casing. For diatonic harmonicas with a single row of channels (such as the first two harmonicas pictured, called ‘vampers’), there are simply vertical partitions separating the wind channel holes--the top and bottom of each channel is enclosed by the reed plates, the far end of the channel is closed with a wood panel (see the first and second detail images, which show the top and bottom reed plates of the same vamper harmonica). For such an harmonica, the tuned metal reeds on a given plate are attached in such a way that they will sound only when air is drawn over them in one direction (the reeds on the plate seen in the first detail image sound when the player exhales/blows air into the instrument’s wind channels; the reeds on the plate seen in the second detail image sound when the player inhales/sucks air into the instrument’s wind channels). For harmonicas with double rows of holes (called ‘tremolo’ harmonicas, see the third, fourth and fifth instruments in the gallery), each channel is fitted with only a single free-reed. Each vertical pair of channels has reeds tuned either to a slightly off-tuned unison (the third and fourth instruments) or to an octave (the fifth instrument), both sounding only when the airstream is going in one direction. The sixth instrument has double holes, each of its channels outfitted with two reeds tuned to different pitches with one of these reeds sounding when the player inhales and the other when the player exhales. A spring-loaded lever that operates a slide in front of the channel holes allows air to pass through either the upper row of holes when in its normal position (see third detail image) or the lower row when in its pressed position (see fourth detail image). Each harmonica pictured on the gallery is unique from the other in terms of its tuning, its number and types of holes, and its number of reeds. Briefly: harmonica #1 is a diatonic vamp harmonica tuned to C with ten holes and twenty reeds; harmonica #2 is a diatonic vamp harmonica tuned to E with ten holes and twenty reeds; harmonica #3 is a diatonic tremolo harmonica (pairs of reeds tuned to unison) tuned to G with 24 double holes and 48 reeds; harmonica #4 is a diatonic tremolo harmonica (pairs of reeds tuned to unison) tuned to C minor with 21 double holes and 42 reeds; harmonica #5 is a diatonic tremolo harmonica (pairs of reeds tuned to octaves) tuned to C with 14 double holes and 28 reeds; and harmonica #6 is a chromatic harmonica with 12 double holes and 48 reeds. A metal cap, open along one side, is screwed over each reed plate to create a small resonating space, which increases the volume of the vibrating reeds.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A harmonica can be held by a player with one hand, both hands, or with a wire neck stand. The instrument is situated horizontally in front of the player with the channel-hole side facing the performer. The player places his or her lips above and below the holes, either moving the harmonica side-to side (if handheld) or their head side-to-side (if mounted on a neck stand) to cover one or a few neighboring single or double holes. To sound the instrument, the performer both inhales and exhales sequentially through the selected channel holes. For diatonic harmonicas, notes in the tonic triad of the key to which the harmonica is tuned are produced when the player exhales; when the player inhales, notes in the dominant triad or dominant seventh chord are sounded, or incomplete subdominant and supertonic triads can be sounded. The number of notes sounding at a given moment depends on the number of holes the player’s embouchure spans; the performer can also use their tongue to focus the airstream so that only a single hole or one double hole is active. The tuning and range of each of the six harmonicas as pictured in the gallery are as follows:  the first harmonica produces the notes in the C major scale over a range of three octaves (C4 - C7), the middle octave is complete but the bottom and top octaves are not; the second harmonica produces the notes in the E major scale over a range of three octaves (E4 - E7), the middle octave is complete but the bottom and top octaves are not; the third harmonica produces the notes in the G major scale over a range of three-and-a half octaves (G3 - D8), the second and third octaves are complete but the bottom and the top (partial) octaves are not; the fourth harmonica produces the notes in the C harmonic minor scale over a range of three octaves (C4 - C7), the lowest two octaves are complete but the top octave is not; the fifth harmonica produces the notes in the C major scale over a range of two octaves (E3/E4 - E5/E6 with each double hole producing an octave), only the middle octave is complete while the bottom and top partial octaves are not; and the sixth harmonica, which is chromatic, has its top row of holes tuned to the C major scale over a range of three octaves (C4 - C7), all octaves complete, and its bottom row tuned to C-sharp major over a range of three octaves (C-sharp4 - C-sharp7), all octaves complete.


The free-reed concept was introduced to Europe in the late 18th century from China, where it had been incorporated into instrument design for millennia (see entry for ‘sheng’). Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann is credited with the invention of the harmonica in 1821 (Beynon and Romani, p.128), when he produced a free-reed tuning instrument called the ‘aura.’ In the 1850s, Trossingen, Germany, became a center for the manufacture of handmade harmonicas, and one maker in particular, Matthias Hohner, soon applied new principles of mass-production to create a fast-growing business (several of the instruments pictured on this page were made by the Hohner company, which is still in business). By the last quarter of the 19th century, the Hohner company alone was producing hundreds of thousands of harmonicas yearly, and a large number of these were being exported to the United States. Up until the early 1920s, when the chromatic harmonica evolved, all harmonicas were of the diatonic type.

Bibliographic Citations

Beynon, Ivor, and G. Romani. 1984. “Harmonica [mouth organ],” NGDMI v.2: 127-128.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Nation: Germany

Formation: German

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

412.132 aerophone--set of free reeds (lamella vibrates through a closely-fitting slot): interruptive free reeds

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: no standing wave cavity

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation and inhalation through mouth creates airstream through instrument; bidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: encased free reed mounted on block

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: multiple pitches - multiple single-pitch free reeds activated directly by player


3.9 in. length (first two instruments) 7.5 in. length (third and fourth instruments) 4.6 in. length (fifth instrument) 5.5 in length (sixth instrument)

Primary Materials

reed - metal
metal - sheet


Hohner (first, second, third, fifth and sixth instruments)


Marine Band C

Entry Author

Roger Vetter