A small musical instrument with a series of graduated metal reeds that vibrate and produce tones when air is blown or sucked across them. It is played by blues musicians and small children.

Also, a musical instrument consisting of a conveniently arranged series of graduated glasses from which tones are produced by rubbing the edges with a wet finger. (Well, its proper name is the "glass harmonica"...but close enough, damn it!) Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner and actress Gwyneth Paltrow are both harmonica virtuosoes--virtuosi--whatever.

And finally, a percussion instrument which consists of metal or glass strips which are struck with small mallets. This instrument was invented by Mary, Queen of Scots--and then stolen by the damned Spaniards!
The first known harmonica was patented by Christian Friedrich Buschmann in 1821. Christian was only 16, and the harmonica he invented was a simple and awkward instrument. The notes changed by a slide stick in the side, and didn't allow for too many tonal changes.

The diatonic harmonica was developed in 1826 by Richter. This version allowed for the modern 'suck and blow' method of playing, where a different note is played depending on whether a hole is being blown into or sucked on. This was called the 'mundharmonika', or mouth organ.

In 1857 the wacky world of harmonicas was changed forever when a young German whipper-snapper named Matthias Hohner turned his hand at manufacturing the instruments. He intended this ten-hole reed instrument to be used for polka music and German waltzes. In the first year, Hohner sold 650 harmonicas; mass production and an introduction to North America in 1862 meant that by 1887 over a million harmonicas were being sold all over the world.

Somewhere along the way, the name was changed from the difficult to pronounce and spell 'mundharmonika' to the simple 'harmonica', much to the relief of the English-speaking world. This occurred as a result of the harmonizing elements- it's damn near impossible to play notes on a harmonica that won't harmonize with each other. They're just built that way. It's a good thing, too, as harmonicas are annoying to listen to for long periods of time as they are- imagine if the amateur tootler was able to play bad combinations of notes as well. Ugh.

Now, over 100 years later, we can choose from more than 90 varieties of harmonica, depending on our musical needs: jazz, blues, classical, country, rock and all the genres in between.

No doubt about it, that Buschmann guy was onto something big way back then.

info from www.hohnerusa.com and "Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless" by J. Gindick, ISBN 0-932592-08-2

Most harmonicas have ten holes and twenty reeds. Each hole has two because a different one is active when you blow or draw through the hole. Why are they called that? Harmony, idiot. Harmonicas come in a particular musical key, and not all notes are present. (ok, they are if you know how to bend) While this is sometimes an inconvenience, the nice part is that if you accidentally (or intentionally) blow/suck through the hole next to the target hole you were going for, it doesn't sound as bad as it would on, say, a piano. In fact, sometimes it even sounds good. That's called a chord.

Har*mon"i*ca (?), n. [Fem. fr. L. harmonicus harmonic. See Harmonic, n. ]

1.

A musical instrument, consisting of a series of hemispherical glasses which, by touching the edges with the dampened finger, give forth the tones.

<-- NOTE: This is now called the "Glass harmonica". The modern hand instrument has reeds -->

2.

A toy instrument of strips of glass or metal hung on two tapes, and struck with hammers.

 

© Webster 1913.

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