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  • Writer's pictureandreahywong

ICCCH Episode 1-3: Harmonica Mechanics, Basic Techniques, & Limitations

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

As part of my challenge to take on that (personally) daunting and foreign task of composition, I decided to participate and aim to submit a composition for this chromatic harmonica composition competition. Part of this competition is educational; the Hong Kong Harmonica Association (HKHA) is releasing some online resources regarding the chromatic harmonica and I thought I’d jot down some notes on what I learn in this post! Honestly, this little instrument is so full of surprises! I’m so glad I came across this awesome event(?)! #ICCCH2021_HKHarmonica

The history of the harmonica

  • 1700s - Chinese Sheng (free reed instrument) was brought to Europe

  • blow and draw mechanism inspired the diatonic harmonica which evolved into the tremolo and chromatic harmonica (has a button on the right end!)

  • I did a quick search, and this video demonstrated that a tremolo harmonica is much longer and is made to play 2 similarly pitched notes simultaneously (the combination of slightly detuned pitches produce the tremolo effect) used in traditional folk (Celtic/Irish and Scottish) music. Blues/diatonic harmonicas are used more in the West

12-hole chromatic harmonica

Upper Part: mouthpiece and slider

  • mouthpiece has a slider mechanism see at 1:43

  • air flow is re-directed into reed plates tuned to the sharps/flats (non-diatonic notes) of the harmonica’s tuning/key

Lower Part: copper plate, comb, reed plates

  • chambers form a closed compartment when covered by the 2 reed plates

Sound generation:

  • blowing and drawing produces air circulation through the space between the mouthpiece(?) and reed plate

  • Pitch: vibrations cause different pitches based on reed weight and length (tuned to 12-TET/12-tone equal temperament), pitch range: C4 to D7

  • longer/heavier reeds are lower pitched than shorter/lighter reeds (high pitched)

  • Amplitude: air pressure determines the volume/dynamics

  • Harmonicas can be made of different Materials which give rise to different timbres (demo at 3:28)

5 Basic Techniques

  1. Breathing Control (Blow and Draw) - diaphragmatic breathing (vs. lung)

  2. Mouth Control - changes in the oral cavity shape and tongue position will in turn change air flow, and affect pitch and tone

  3. Hand and Head Lateral Movement (left and right) - 90* to the lips of the player, hands form a cave that functions as a mute, hand position affects the tone of the harmonica (Left hand = prime mover, right hand = stabilizer, head remains steady)

  4. Slide Control - right index finger is on the slider button

  5. Glottal Separation and Tonguing - 2 ways to create attack sound on harmonica

  • glottal separation - similar to coughing (forced exhalation with closed glottis); maintains smooth air flow in oral cavity (pitch is not affected)

  • tonguing – quick tongue protrusions changes oral cavity shape which blocks air flow to the mouthpiece (might cause changes to pitch and tone of the note)


Longest duration of draws and blows on certain pitches:

The ff notes are exhausted in breath sooner than the softer notes. This makes sense!

These are good limits to keep in mind for writing - the limits of how slow and fast a (professional!) harmonica player can play!

I love how this comparison really showed not just how years of experience affects a player’s ability to perform a certain test, but also how the correlation with the frequency of their recent practice!

I was especially interested in seeing the differences between exercises in different keys! How different is it to play in A Major vs. C Major (assuming using a C chromatic harmonica)? Is it disproportionately more difficult? I know there are certain keys on every instrument that are less intuitive to execute so there should be no surprise that the harmonica has similar key differences!

For simplicity(?), I’ve abbreviated the different players to single letters P/R/O/B.

P - Professional (recently daily practice, 26 years experience)

R - Recreational (recently no practice, 10 years experience) O - Off-Season (recently no practice, 6-years experience)

B - Beginner (recently daily practice, 1-year experience)

Alright, so the exercises and their results (in bpm…)


  • C Major Scale (P - 200, R - 92, O - 52, B - 56)

  • E Major Scale (P - 175, R - 74, O - 44, B - 50)

  • Chromatic Scale (P - 217, R - 83, O - 35, B - 48)


  • C Major Arpeggio (P - 230, R - 51, O - 38, B - 38)

  • A Minor Arpeggio (P - 173, R - 64, O - 38, B - 36)

  • E Major Arpeggio (P - 117, R - 65, O - 31, B - 37)


  • C Major Leaps (P - 228, R - 127, O - 86, B - 96)

  • A Major Leaps (P - 206, R - 91, O - 60, B - 83)

Glottal Separation:

  • Green Hornet Excerpt (P - 160, R - 98, O - 81, B - 78)

  • Prelude and Dance Excerpt (P - 255, R - 130, O - 81, B - 115)

Glottal Separation and Tonguing:

  • Summer by Vivaldi (P - 149, R - 100, O - 71, B - 74)

This was so cool to see side-by-side! Not just the incredible virtuosity this instrument is able to produce, but to also see how profound practice can be. That beginner student is totally rocking these exercises for just 1-year of learning this instrument! The “off-season” student was a neat example to see too! That despite having more years of experience, sometimes they were slower and more limited in the exercise than someone less experienced but more recently practiced. However, isn’t this just optimistic? That it just takes picking up that instrument and practicing getting right back up there with those chops, and also, that those skills never really leave you! Sure, she might’ve become rustier than when she was practicing more regularly, but definitely didn’t lost the skill entirely. This isn’t necessarily something new to me, but I love how clear this video demonstrated this. So neat!

These guidelines and quantified numbers (bpm) are also super useful! I’ll have to check again but I think the composition competition asked for something technically “show-casable” for harmonica soloists/competitors. So, having these skill-based references can guide the difficult of a composed passage!

To Be Continued...



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