The harmonica is one of those musical instruments like a tambourine, triangle, or cow bell that is often overlooked, but many popular songs would sound quite different without. Simple and elegant in its design, the harmonica is often given as a gift to kids because it is easy to play. While it may be easy to play, it is difficult to master.
A harmonica is defined as a free reed instrument in which sound is created by the flow of air vibrating a reed placed within the frame. The air flow is the result of a person breathing in or blowing out while the harmonica is placed against her lips.
The harmonica only has three essential parts. The long shape of the harmonica is technically called the comb. The reed plate is located inside the comb and contains a group of reeds that can be made from brass, steel or even plastic on cheaper brands. The cover plates cover the reed plate, and are usually made of metal or wood.
There are three main types of harmonicas. The diatonic harmonica is the most common, consisting of 10 holes and playing 12 different keys. The chromatic harmonica has a button that, when depressed, allows the addition of certain half notes. This type is often used for jazz compositions. The tremolo harmonica is essentially a diatonic model that has double holes with reeds attuned to each to create the tremolo effect that gives this type its name.
Amazingly enough, the harmonica only dates back to the 19th century. A teenager named Christian Friedrich Buschmann filed the first patent for a harmonica instrument in 1821, but the harmonica is actually a case of several people coming up with the idea independently of each other. Buschmann's model was quickly imitated and adapted and the portability and affordability of the instrument quickly made it popular.
Although initially constructed as an instrument to be used for classic music, the harmonica did not really take off until African-Americans began to incorporate it into the blues. The instrument became as vital an element in the playing of this style of music as the guitar and so it is quite natural that rock music adopted the harmonica as they did incorporated so much else from blues music into this new genre.
Popular Use of Harmonica
The harmonica has been an essential and memorable instrument in many very popular songs. Among the song that would sound quite different without a harmonica that have become legendary are "Fingertips" by Stevie Wonder, the theme song to the movie "Midnight Cowboy," "Love Me Do" by the Beatles, "Piano Man" by Billy Joel and almost any blues song.