The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers


Richard Martin

(Reprinted with permission from The Harmonica Educator)

This article is from a research paper that I wrote about the harmonica. Actually, I wrote the paper for a college English class in 1988. Since I had access to a lot of resource material about the history and origin of the harmonica, I was able to write the research paper without too much trouble. I have updated the original research paper with the addition of new information and pictures. I think harmonicists, who desire to know more about the history and origin of the harmonica, will find this article interesting.

The Harmonica

The harmonica is like a "portable pocket piano" capable of producing a mouthful of music for millions of people around the world (Gaskill 191). The harmonica is really a Western mouth organ, which has grown in popularity since its invention, in 1821, by Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann. With the advent and perfection of the chromatic harmonica by the Hohner Company, harmonica enthusiasts all over the world are now able to play a wide range of music on this instrument. Many "harmonica aficionados" may not be aware that the Eastern mouth organ is "the immediate ancestor not only of the Western mouth organ but of all European free-reed instruments." (Marcuse 731).

Basic Classification of Instruments

Eastern and Western mouth organs are classified as free-reed instruments. According to the Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments of the World (p.14), free-reed instruments are part of a family tree of musical instruments that are classified under the general heading of Aerophone Instruments.


Aerophones are constructed so that the vibration of air in the instrument will produce a musical tone. Family tree members include instruments with blow holes (e.g., panpipes), whistle mouthpieces (e.g., recorders), single reeds (e.g., clarinets), double reeds (e.g., oboes), cup mouthpieces (e.g., trumpets), free aerophones (e.g., humming tops), and free-reeds (e.g., Eastern and Western mouth organs, concertinas/accordions, and harmoniums). (See Figure 1)

Eastern Mouth Organs

Eastern and Western mouth organs have very different constructions. Modern Eastern mouth organs are constructed with 17 different sized bamboo pipes arranged in a semi-circle, and inserted into a circular shaped wind chamber within a metal bowl. Only 14 pipes can produce musical tones. The other 3 pipes are mute. Each one of the 14 pipes has a single air stop hole and a copper reed plate mounted near its end. About one inch from the end, one half of the pipe wall is cut away. The other half is tapered where a copper reed plate is mounted. Prior to mounting the reed plate, a short rectangular cut is made into the plate in the shape of a tongue. To produce a musical tone, a player holds the instrument with both hands, and covers some of the air stops while blowing or drawing air through the mouthpiece. Air passing through the mouthpiece into the wind chamber (blow and draw) causes the metal tongue to vibrate like a free-reed. Air vibrating over each free-reed produces a different musical tone. (See Figures 1 & 2)

Western Mouth Organs

Western mouth organs are constructed in the shape of a wooden or plastic box cut with different sizes of channel openings. The box is called the comb. Metal reed plates (top and bottom) are attached to the comb. Each reed plate is cut with rectangular reed slots of different sizes. Free-swinging brass reeds are mounted to cover each corresponding reed slot on the plate. Depending on the mouth organ model, reed plates may contain from 8 reeds (e.g., the Little Lady harmonica) to as many as 384 reeds (e.g., the 48 chord harmonica). The top and bottom reed plates have metal covers attached to them. One side of each cover has an open space between the reed plate and the metal cover. This side is towards the back of the instrument. The other side of each cover is closed and touching the reed plate. This side is towards the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece may have as few as 4 single hole openings (Little Lady harmonica), or as many as 96 double hole openings (48 chord harmonica). Air blown or drawn, through a number of hole openings in the mouthpiece, causes free-reeds to vibrate, and produces different musical tones. (See Figure 1)

History of the Western Mouth Organ

The history of the Western mouth organ can be traced back to the Eastern mouth organ called the Sheng. This instrument was invented in China. There was a primitive mouth organ in use among the Chingmiau tribes (non-Chinese people related to the Thai-speaking people of Haenan) near Anshuenn, Gueyjou Province, China (date unknown) This mouth organ resembled the Sheng, and it had 6 bamboo tubes of various sizes. (See Figure 2[b] & Figure 3 [item 2]) The bamboo tubes were held in place with strands of bamboo. The tubes were then fitted into and around a wooden wind chest with a mouthpiece (Wallesz 136). The copper reeds were tuned, with blobs of wax, to the scale D F G A C D. Figure 2 Diag A & B show how the oriental mouth organ works.

The more sophisticated mouth organ is the Sheng (sometimes spelled Cheng) (Ward 863). The word Sheng means "sublime voice" (Gaskill 192). This mouth-organ was invented by the female sovereign Nyn-Kwa in 3000 BC (Figures 3[3] & 4) "The Sheng was formed to imitate the shape of the Phoenix bird and it is probably under the influence of this tradition that it is being used to this day in China in funeral processions" (Buchner 16)

Modern Shengs are made of 17 bamboo pipes of different sizes. There are 14 pairs of various sized pipes, with 3 pipes of the same length. 14 pipes are fitted with free-swinging metal reeds, and into each pipe is cut a round air stop hole. Three pipes are mute. All 17 pipes are placed in a half circle configuration, and seated into a circular wind chamber of a metal bowl with a long metal mouthpiece. The pipes are secured in place with a strip of bamboo. A player holds the instrument upright (or at a slight right angle) in both hands while blowing or drawing air through the mouthpiece. An air stop hole must be blocked off to allow air to pass over a particular reed to produce a particular musical tone. Single tones, or a combination of tones (chords), can be heard by blocking off different holes with the fingers and thumbs of both hands. (Figure 4) The Sheng's 14 reeds may be tuned to a number of different pitches of the primitive pentatonic scale (e.g., G" F#" E" C#" C" B' E" G" C#" B" A" D"' D" A') (Sadie 278). The marks above the notes represent pitches of the pitch spectrum above middle C on the piano. Therefore, the tone B' sounds one octave above middle C, the tone C#" sounds two octaves above middle C, and the tone D"' sounds 3 octaves above middle C (Christ 15).

Eastern Mouth Organs Today

Today, Eastern mouth organs can be seen and heard in many oriental countries. The Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments of the World (p.78) indicates that, in addition to China, different sizes and shapes of mouth organs are played, in such countries as Borneo (Figure 2[a] & Figure 3[1]), with bamboo pipes placed into a gourd wind chamber. In Laos, (Figure 2[c]) another primitive type has up to 16 bamboo pipes seated into a wood or ivory wind chamber. The instrument is made into three sizes with the pipes of the largest size reaching 10 feet in length. Japan's mouth organ, called the shô, is constructed with bamboo and wood. It is similar in shape, but larger than the Chinese Sheng. In the past, the influence of the Chinese Sheng had "radiated to Korea and Japan, through all of Indochina and Bengal over to Persia." (Marcuse 734). As a result of this influence, travelers brought oriental mouth organs to Europe as early as the 17th and 18th centuries. In France, Louis XIV heard Persian mouth organs played along with other instruments in his court in 1648 (p.734). According to Brad Harris, Harmonica Historian, some say that the instrument described "could scarcely be anything other than" a mouth organ. Others say that this is a misunderstanding, and that the Persian organ was something similar to a mouth bow, jaw harp, or panpipe. John Wilde, the inventor of the nail violin, learned to play a Sheng during his stay in Saint Petersburg, Russia from 1741 to 1764 (p.734). (Figure 5)

Early Experimentation With The Free-Reed

Harmonica Historian, Brad Harris, says that although the mouth organ was present in the west by the middle of the eighteenth century, experimentation with the free-reed did not begin until a Sheng was sent to Paris by a Jesuit missionary in China, Father Amiot. The Sheng arrived in Paris in 1777, and apparently was then sent to Saint Petersburg. This Sheng was studied by a Danish physicist named Kratzenstein, and he suggested to an organ builder that the free-reed be used in the development of a new organ stop. As a result, experiments were undertaken on the use of free-reed stops in piano-organs and pipe organs. Unfortunately, the use of free-reed stops in keyboard instruments was not popular with the public, and as a result, most pipe-organ builders discontinued the use of free-reed stops in their keyboard instruments (Marcuse 734)

Incorporating Free-Reeds in a Western Mouth Organ

The idea of incorporating free-reeds in a Western mouth organs not realized until the 19th century. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians credits a number of Europeans with the development or manufacture of the harmonica. In 1821, the first harmonica was created by a German clock maker, Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann (M. Hohner 1975, Sadie 163). Buschmann's invention (called aura) was probably a metal plate with 15 reed slots covered with corresponding free-reeds. Primarily, he designed the aura as a tuning instrument rather than a musical instrument (Sadie 163). In 1825, Fr. Hotz began producing mouth organs in his factory in Knittlingen, Germany (Scholes 864). Another German, Christian Messner, acquired some of Christian Buschmann's auras. He set up shop in his clock-making firm in Trossingen, in 1827, and began manufacturing instruments that were similar to Buschmann's "aura." Messner called these instruments "mundaeolines." (Scholes 864, Sadie 164). Two years later, an Englishman, Sir Charles Wheatstone, patented a type of mouth organ. He constructed his instrument "using brass reeds controlled by a small button keyboard, which he called a 'symphonium'." (Sadie 164). Some authorities have called Wheatstone's construction an Aeolina (Gilmore 32), or the mund-aeoline (M. Hohner 1975). (Figure 6)

During the year 1829, J. W. Glier began manufacturing mouth organs at his factory in Klingenthal, Germany (Sadie 164). In 1855, the German, Christian Weiss, started producing mouth organs (164). Finally, in 1857, a firm in Trossingen Germany began mass-producing harmonicas for the public. At the head of this company was the famous Matthias Hohner (p.164). Today, the manufacture of harmonicas in Europe is in the sole domain of the Hohner harmonica factory at Trossingen. Apparently, the manufacturing of mouth organs by other European firms has been absorbed into the Hohner organization (Ward 864).

The Harmonica Has Many Names

The harmonica, or mouth organ, has many names in many different languages. It is referred to in German as "Mundharmonika," in French as "harmonica á bouche," in Italian as "armonica a bocca," and in Spanish as "armonica." (Ward 440, Apel 366). In the English language it is referred to as "harmonica, mouth organ, French harp, and harp." (Licht 9).

Brad Harris, Harmonica Historian, says the name originally goes back to the accordion. In 1829, in Vienna, Cyrill Demian was granted a "privilege" to make the "akkordion," meaning he had exclusive rights to the instrument. Several people copied his accordion anyway, but because of Deminan's privilege, they had to use a different name. They chose to call it the "handharmonika." Because of the close relationship between the two instruments, the mouth organ began to be called the "mundharmonika." As it common in the English speaking world, the spelling was anglicized. As "akkordion" became "accordion," so "harmonika" became "harmonica."

When Hohner First Began Producing Harmonicas

When Hohner first began producing harmonicas, in 1857, his factory produced a mere 650 harmonicas. In 1879, he increased his production to over 700,000 harmonicas. At the turn of the century, the company was producing five million harmonicas annually (Hohner 1975). Since that time, the Hohner company has expanded their production to over 50 diatonic and chromatic harmonica models, and since 1979, "some 40 million people in the U.S. play the harmonica, as well as nearly 5 million in Canada." (Hohner, 1975, 1979)

Diatonic and Chromatic Harmonicas

Diatonic and chromatic harmonicas are constructed with different tonal arrangements. Diatonic harmonicas are tuned with only the natural tones (e.g., C, D, E, F, and etc.), and with no half steps in between each tone (e.g., C, C#, D, D#, E, F, and etc.). The natural tones of the diatonic harmonica are like those played on the white keys of the piano. The half step tones (black keys) are not used in the tuning of diatonic harmonicas.

Diatonic Harmonicas

Diatonic harmonicas are available in three different types of reed tuning: single reed tuning, tremolo tuned, and octave tuned. The first type, the single-reed diatonic harmonica, is constructed with single holes in the mouthpiece, and 1 "blow and draw" reed in each hole. Each reed is tuned to a different tone (e.g., hole 1: CD, hole 2: EG). There are a number of Hohner single reed models available to the public. For example, a Hohner catalog indicates that one model is available in the keys of C and G. It's one complete octave range is contained in 4 holes. Another model, is available in the major keys of A, B, Bb, C, Db, E, Eb, F, F#, G, and Ab. A tonal range of 3 octaves can be played on this 10 hole instrument. There is a model that is tuned in the minor keys of C and G, and has a musical range of 3 octaves in its 10 holes. For the blues player, there is a 10 hole model available in a number of different keys, and has a 3 octave range. The tonal arrangement of a typical single reed, 10 hole harmonica, is as follows:

Holes12345 678910

Holes 1-3, and holes 8-10 are used for playing chords. Holes 4-7 can be used for playing a complete diatonic scale. The scale tones are played in a succession of "blow or draw" breaths ascending up the scale and descending down the scale. The natural C scale has the following tones: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. To ascend up the scale, a player would blow C, draw D, blow E, draw F, blow G, draw A, draw B, and blow C. The action is reversed when descending down the scale. (Figure 7)

The second type of diatonic harmonica is the tremolo-tuned harmonica. This instrument has a row of double holes in the mouthpiece. Each hole has 2 reeds (blow or draw) tuned to the same tone, with one reed is tuned higher than the other. Playing the instrument causes the reeds to vibrate with a tremolo effect. There are single sided, double sided, quartet, and sextet models with two to four octaves. A number of different keys are available with each model. Single sided models have a tuned harmonica on one side of its comb. Double-sided models have a different tuned harmonica on each side of its comb. Other models have from four to six different tuned harmonicas mounted on a frame. The player turns the frame to have access to a different harmonica. (Figure 8)

The third type of diatonic is the octave-tuned harmonica. Octave tuned harmonicas are similar to the tremolos in reed construction and octave ranges. The difference is, that the reeds, in each double hole, are tuned one octave apart from each other. The models below produce a strong tone, and have no tremolo effect. Octave tuned harmonicas are available only in single and double sided models. (Figure 9)

The Chromatic Harmonica

Another type of harmonica, that has the capability of producing half step tones, is the chromatic harmonica. The Hohner chromatic was introduced to the public sometime in the 1920s (Sadie 163). There are two main types of chromatics: The solo tuned harmonicas, and accompaniment harmonicas. The first type is used for playing solos, and participating in ensemble groups. The solo tuned chromatics are able to produce half tones (sharps and flats) with the use of a slide button (located at one end of the instrument). Chromatic harmonicas have ranges that are: 2, 2 1/2, 3, and 4 chromatic octaves. There are models for beginners and professionals. The 2 octave model has a tonal range from middle "C" on the piano (treble clef), to small "c#" (with the button in, two ledger lines above the treble clef). The 2 1/2 octave professional model has a tonal range from middle "C" to small "f#" (with the button in, three ledger lines above the treble clef). There are models with 3 octaves (beginner and professional). Each harmonica's tonal range begins at middle "C," and extends to small "d" (with the button in, six ledger lines above the treble clef). The professional 4 octave model's range extends from the bass clef "C," to the small "d" (with the button in, six ledger lines above the treble clef). When the chromatic harmonica is played with the button out, the player has access to the natural tones or the white keys on the piano (e.g., C,D,E,F, etc.). When the button is pushed in, the player has access to the half tones (or black keys) (e.g., C, C#, Db, D, D#, etc.).(Figure 10)

The Bass Harmonica

The second type of chromatic harmonica is the bass harmonica, which is used for orchestral accompaniment. (Figure 11) This instrument provides the fundamental bass tones. As of this writing, there are three double bass harmonica models manufactured by Hohner. The first model (No. 268) has an extended range. Its 2 1/2 octave range is from Contra E in the bass clef, to small c' in the treble clef. It has 39 holes and 78 all "blow" reeds. The instrument has two harmonicas (one hinged above the other). Each hole has two all "blow" reeds. The top harmonica is for playing the sharps and flats (black keys), and the lower one for the natural tones (white keys). The second model (No. 265) has a 2 chromatic octave range with two all "blow" reeds. The range is from Contra E in the bass clef, to small e' in the treble clef. The third model (No. 264) has 2 chromatic octaves with single "blow" reeds. The range is from Contra G to small g' in treble clef. The instrument has 28 holes, and 56 reeds.

Chord Harmonicas

Another orchestral accompaniment instrument is the 48 chord harmonica. (Figure 11) This instrument provides the rhythm accompaniment for an ensemble. As of this writing, there are two chord accompaniment models manufactured by Hohner. The first model is The 48 Chord. It has two hinged harmonicas (one hinged above the other), with 12 "blow and draw" chords, in each harmonica, for a total of 48 chords. This chord has the capability of producing the major, minor, sevenths, diminished, and augmented chords. The instrument has 96 double holes, and 384 reeds. The 48 Chord measures 23 inches in length, which makes this the longest harmonica in the world! The 48 chord is used with the advanced and professional harmonica ensembles. (Figure 11) The second chord is the Vineta junior chord accompaniment harmonica. This instrument plays an important part in the diatonic harmonica band. Reeds provide the bass note and the tonic and dominant seventh chords in the keys of C, F, and G. The instrument has 6 bass tones and 6 chords in all. There are 24 Double holes, and 48 reeds.

Top to Bottom:

Double Bass Extended No. 268. - 30 Holes, 78 reeds. Extended range - Contra E to c.

Chromatica No. 263. - Accompaniment harmonica. 35 holes, 70 blow and draw reeds. Range g to f".

The 48 Chord Harmonica No. 267. - 96 double holes, 384 reeds.

Double Bass No. 265. - 29 holes, 58 blow reeds. Range - Contra E to e'.

Single Bass No. 264. - Double tier, 28 holes, 56 single blow reeds. Range - G to g' (2 bass octaves).

Vineta No. 4. - Junior chord accompaniment. Reeds provide the bass note and the tonic and dominant seventh chords in the keys of C, F and G. 6 bass tones and 6 chords in all. 24 double holes, 48 reeds.

The Polyphonia Chromatic Harmonicas

The fast chromatic runs, trills, variations, and other special effects are provided by the Polyphonias. (Figure 12) The chromatic half steps are obtained without the use of a lever because the tones in each successive hole progress in half steps. The small instruments have a range of two complete octaves and the larger instruments have three octaves less one step. The lengths of the instruments are from over 10 inches to 14 inches. The ranges of the models extends from the treble clef "D," to small "d" (six ledger lines above the treble clef), the bass clef "D," to the treble clef "D," the bass clef "A," to the small "g" (four ledger lines above the treble clef), the bass clef "G," to the small "f" (three ledger lines above the treble clef), and the bass clef "G" to the small "f" (three ledger lines above the treble clef). Some models have "blow" and "draw" reeds, while others have all "blow" reeds. The early professional groups used the polyphonias in the 40s and 50s. Today, some polyphonias are still used by professional harmonica ensembles in public performances, and in studio recordings.

Top to Bottom:

Polyphonia No. 5 - Runs, trills, variations and other effect are possible on this 2 octave instrument with complete chromatic scale. Blow and draw reeds tuned alike in each hole. 25 double holes, 50 reeds. Range - d" to d"".

Polyphonia No. 7 - Beautiful, deep tone of this instrument adds richness to the harmonica ensemble. Range of 2 chromatic octaves. Blow reed tone and position. 25 single holes, 25 blow reeds. Range D - d'.


Ancient and Oriental Music. Vol. 1 of The New Oxford History of Music. Ed. Egon Wallesz. 8 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Buchner, Alexander. Folk Instruments of the World. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1972.

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Christ, William, et al. Materials and Structure of Music. 2nd ed, Vol 2. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.

Gaskill, Gordon. "Never Underestimate the Power of a Pocket Piano," Reader's Digest, July 1967. Condensed from Contemporary, June 4, 1967.

Harris, Bradley G. "Letter to Richard Martin," November 1993.

Hohner, M. Inc. "A Brief History of the Harmonica," New York:M. Hohner, Inc., 1975.

---"Easy Reeding," Richmond: M. Hohner, Inc., 1979.

Licht, Michael. "America's Harp," Folklife Center News. Washington: American Folklife Center. 7: 6-9.

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Musical Instruments of the World. Ed. Ruth Midgley. Holland:Smeets Offset, B.V., Weets, 1976.

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Reed Instruments. Vol, 15, New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1980.

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