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The History of Harmonica: Part 1

harmonica history from hohner part 1

The harmonica is an unassuming free reed wind instrument with a broad range of pitch and sound colors. Its portable size sparks curiosity among many, and make us wonder just how this instrument first developed and rose to popularity. Despite being associated with American music genres like blues, folk, jazz, country, and rock - the very roots of the harmonica can be traced back to the other side of the globe long before it ever reached the West.

Let’s take a trip back in time, way back to the year 2500 BC. The origins of a “free reed” instrument can be seen in the traditional Chinese sheng (shown below). 

So what distinguishes this from other reeded instruments? Free feeds are fixed at one end and set over a slot that is barely wider than the reed. Sound is created when pressure (air) is applied to make the reed vibrate in its place.

This is different than the single beating reed of the clarinet, saxaphone, or double reeded oboe. The reeds are most commonly made from metal, plastic, or bamboo.

harmonica history - reeds

There are two distinct types of free reed instruments. The type that is used in a harmonica can be described as heteroglottal - meaning the reed is attached to a separately-made reedplate. The other type of free reed instruments are idioglottal - the tongue of the reed is cut out of the reedplate which surrounds it.  

For centuries, free reed wind instruments in various sizes and forms spread throughout South East Asia to the Phillippines and Thailand, and then later to Korea and Japan. It was not until the 18th century though that any free reed instruments made its way to Europe by travelers who brought them over from Asia.

harmonica history auraThe first known harmonicas to be produced in Europe were by a young German instrument maker named Christian Frederich Buschmann in 1820. He called it “Aura” (shown on the right) - it had a metal reed and you could only produce blow notes. 

Five years later in 1825, a breakthrough occured: Joseph Richter developed the first modern diatonic harmonica with both blow notes and draw notes. Then things really got interesting...

harmonica history - richter

harmonica history - matthias hohner

Several bright minds over the course of European history contributed to the evolution of the harmonica, but it was Matthias Hohner, a clockmaker and successful businessman, who really revolutionized the manufacturing of harmonicas and made it readily available to the public (shown on the right). 

Although his name is synonymous with the instrument, Matthias Hohner was not the first to manufacture harmonicas. He wasn't even a good harmonica player himself. As is often the case, he was simply a great businessman in the right place at the right time. He started his business in 1857, about 30 years after the first harmonica manufacturer which was in Vienna, Austria. He quickly bought out his competitors and started exporting the first Hohner harmonicas to the United States in 1862, just 5 years after opening. By the time his four sons took over for him, the company had grown to produce over 4 million harmonicas each year and was employing over 1,000 workers.

Hohner’s success made the harmonica much more popular and readily available to a new audience. In addition, Hohner made various improvements to the instrument which were crucial for the integration of the harmonica in many musical genres.

harmonica history - hohner factory

In 1896, the now classic Marine Band harmonica was introduced. Due to its tonal possibilities, it became one of the main instruments for playing blues and country music.

The Hohner company’s innovations did not stop there however. In 1910, they introduced the chromatic harmonica, enabling the player to perform music of all keys on one instrument. 

As we’ll see later, an ambitious musician named Howard Levy would discover an unprecedented way to play diatonic harmonica... a way to reach all the notes of the scale, in any key using a process called overblowing.

Click here for Part 2 of... The History of Harmonica! 


harmonica lessons with howard levy

Learn harmonica online with Howard Levy at


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