Have you ever wondered how to play harmonica and how the entire process works? A harmonica, also called a harp, might seem like a mysterious metal box you breathe into and it may be hard to initially understand how it produces music.

Everyone loves some sort of music. The interesting thing about learning the harmonica is that it allows you to blend into many different styles of music, such as blues, rock and pop.

How do Harmonicas Work? - tremolo, reedplates, orchestral, music, inhaling, harmonica, exhaling, diatonic, chromatic, chenggong

Let’s talk about how harmonicas work so you gain a full understanding for how to play them. We’ll also reveal the different types of harmonicas to choose from.

How a Harmonica Works

A harmonica’s center consists of:

  • A piece of wood
  • Metal
  • A piece of plastic called the comb

The piece of wood, called a slab, has ten channels cut into it. The channels are the holes that move the airflow as your mouth moves along the instrument and creates musical notes. The comb is called a comb for obvious reasons. It creates the channel dividers and looks like the teeth of a comb.

There are two reedplates that make up the comb’s top and bottom layers. The reedplates are rigid brass plates and surround the top and bottom of every channel in the comb. Each reedplate has 10 reeds mounted on it. It’s these reeds that create the notes as they vibrate.

There are covers that create the layer at the top and bottom of the above-mentioned harmonica elements. The covers are made of brass-plated nickel or chrome or stainless steel.

The sounds of the harmonica are amplified via the covers. Another important function of the covers is to protect the reeds as you’re holding the harmonica.

Creating Notes

Reeds are thin strips of brass. Each reed vibrates and produces sound as you push air through the harmonica.

A screw or rivet typically holds one of the reeds to the reedplate. Spot-welding is sometimes used to attach it, too. This allows the rest of the reed to produce sound by vibrating. Underneath the reed, there exists a cut on the reedplate. Air reaches the reed via this slot and it’s what provides the space needed by the reed to swing up and down to vibrate.

Every reed sticks up just a bit off the reedplate. When you’re playing the harp, your breath pushes the reed into the slot and then the reed bounces back into position. This process is called one vibration. Every sound produced by the instrument is the result of reeds vibrating. They might vibrate hundreds or thousands of times every second.

Exhaling vs Inhaling

Every hole on the harmonica has a draw reed and a blow reed positioned inside its air channel. The blow reeds are activated via vibrations as you exhale into the instrument. They are positioned on the upper reedplate inside the air channels.

The draw reeds vibrate as you inhale. They are positioned on the lower reedplate on the outside of the air channels. Your inhaled breath pulls the draw reeds into each slot and this action causes them to vibrate.

How to Locate the Various Notes

The notes of a scale are located along the holes of the instrument. Every harmonica has a “home” note. For example, there are F-harps and C-harps. The home note is always located at the fourth hole.

This means you’ll find the F note at Hole 4 on an F-harp and you’ll find the C note at Hole 4 on a C-harp. The next note up in the scale is the draw note inside the same hole. This means a D, for example, on a C-harp is the draw note in Hole 4.

Every type of harmonica works the same. Once you learn how to play one harmonica, you can play all of them because of this consistency.

Types of Harmonicas

There are many different types of harmonicas. Let’s look at a few of your options.

Diatonic Harmonica

This is the most common harp. According to Music Vibe, it’s also a good harmonica for beginners. A diatonic harp plays in one specific key.

Chromatic Harmonica

This is the second most common type of harmonica. There is a button on the side of the instrument. This button allows air to be redirected around the instrument and applied to any reed you desire.

Chromatic harmonicas come with 12, 14 and 16 hole options. You make your selection based on the keys you wish to play. The key of C is the most common choice.

Tremolo Harmonica

You can play two reeds at a time with a tremolo harmonica. These are more common in East Asia.

Orchestral Harmonica

This is a specialized type of harmonica. It’s used for orchestral performances and allows players to change keys.

ChengGong Harmonica

The ChengGong harmonica is an Asian kind of harp. It has a main body like any other harmonica. However, it has a sliding mouthpiece instead of the permanent one found on most other types of harmonicas.

This diatonic harp can cover three different octaves with its 24-holes. A variety of chords are achieved via the sliding nature of the 11th hole.

Pitch Pipe

This harp is typically used to help guide other players or singers to find a certain pitch needed to begin a song. There two general different options:

  • Pitch pipes used for string players to tune instrument open strings
  • Chromatic pitch pipes used to help choirs with 12-note octaves

Glass Diatonic Harmonica

A new harp was invented by Geoff Stengel in 2009. It’s a diatonic harmonica made of glass. It’s a special kind of glass called borosilicate glass to help make sure the harp can’t break easily.

Brass screws hold the instrument together and reeds can be changed.

Electric Harmonica

An electric harmonica looks just like any other type of harp. The difference is the microphone inside it. It can be connected to an amplifier in order to make it louder. This is useful for live settings in a rock or blues band, for example