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Diatonic Harmonica and Music Theory

If you draw (inhale), this is where things get interesting. The first octave has D,G, and B, the notes of the G major chord. The idea for tuning the first octave like this was to allow the player to play the C major chord blowing, and the G major chord drawing. These are the 1 and 5 chords (written I and V and also called tonic and dominant), which are the most important chords for playing folk music, which was the main use for the diatonic harmonica in 19th century Germany. However, this also means that there is no F or A in the first octave. And to make it a little confusing, 2 draw and 3 blow both are G…

When you play the draw notes in the second octave, things change. From the 4th to 7th hole are D,F,A, and B. In this octave, one can play a major scale - 4 blow, 4 draw, 5 blow, 5 draw, 6 blow, 6 draw, and then 7 draw, 7 blow. If you want to, you can play many simple tunes in a chord/melody style. Put your mouth over the harmonica, melody notes out of the right (high note) side of your mouth and the notes below those on the left side will automatically harmonize the melody with chords – remember that the first octave plays the C and G chords!  

To play the C major scale from 7 to 10, the scheme is reversed. Instead of blow, draw on a hole, and then move to the next hole, it’s 7 blow, then 8 draw, 8 blow, 9 draw, 9 blow, 10 draw (and then there is no B because we have run out of holes!), so we go right to C, which is 10 blow. Many beginners get very confused by this third octave. The scheme reversed and you can’t use the same type or amount of pressure blowing and drawing.

It is confusing. And it’s all invisible to the player, who has to guess what’s going on. It is not linear and no other instrument is set up like this. Some people throw up their hands in frustration after trying to play for a few minutes. 

There is also the problem of how to get a single note. Forming a pucker embouchure is not a natural thing for many people- it takes practice to get the right shape and size, and lots of playing before it becomes second nature. You can also use the tongue block method, which I think is even more difficult- you cover 3 holes with your mouth, block 2 holes with your one side of your tongue and blow through the hole that is not blocked.

Whichever method you use, not only do you have to get your embouchure to be the right size, but every hole feels different, and the draw holes can seem harder to play, especially in the top octave. Many beginners think that the harmonica they bought is defective because they can’t get all the notes to sound.

So, this “easy” instrument is only easy in the sense that if you put your mouth on it and breathe out and in of the bottom few holes, you get 2 very nice sounding chords, and the chord/melody approach magically adds chords to a simple melody.

If you base your playing on the draw chord,  you are playing in the key of G. But it’s not G major- it is G mixolydian, the mode of the major scale that starts on G and has a flat 7 (F). This is the mode of much folk music from the British Isles- and for THE BLUES. You can really hear this if you play a G7 chord- make your mouth big enough to draw simultaneously on holes 2 - 5. This leads to our next chapter…

- Howard Levy

ArtistWorks offers free music theory lessons to members of all its schools taught by Jonathan Coopersmith, Head of the Music Theory Department at Curtis Institute of Music.

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