The mouth organ is also called a harmonica, blues harp, French harp, or just simply harp. If you are a fan of 1970s Hindi action cinema, when you think of the mouth organ, (as it is best known in India), you might picture none other than Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. He portrayed the character of a quiet, mysterious loner who played an unforgettable riff on the mouth organ into the silent recesses of the night in the blockbuster movie Sholay. The tune accentuated his character adding a romantic dimension to his personality. It was a tune that dissolved your worries as you became one with the melody. Such is the power of the humble mouth organ.
Benefits of the mouth organ – portability & size
The mouth organ or harmonica is a handy instrument that you can carry with you wherever you go. You might be surprised to see such a miniature instrument produce so many different sounds. Its significance and place among wind instruments is truly belied by its size.
How to play the harmonica
A standard mouth organ or harmonica has 10 holes. You get harmonicas with 4 holes as well as 24 holes. You have to blow in and out through each hole to produce notes. This results in the production of different sounds on it.
There are two ways in which you can play the harmonica: one is to take a bit of the harmonica in your mouth and play lightly on it, and the other is to take more of the harmonica and make it sound fuller. Watch legendary harmonicist Corky Siegel give you a demo as he shows you how to play a harmonica.
Harmonica for beginners
Are you looking for a good mouth organ to buy for beginners? The instrument that would suit beginners best would be a diatonic harmonica with 10 holes tuned to the key of C. But can you play, you wonder? Corky Siegel says, “If you can breathe in and out, you can play the harmonica!” So, wonder no more!
Harmonicists not only have to manage their breathing while playing but they also have to negotiate their lips and hands within a small space. A good teacher can help you with these unique elements of the mouth organ. Learn the harmonica at your own pace now!
In the meanwhile, here are some more fun, little-known facts that might interest you about the mouth organ.
1. One harmonica per key
If you’re wondering why we don’t start with the first hole for C, good point! You do get a C when you blow into the first hole – but it is the C that is an octave lower than the middle C.
Then, move on to the fifth hole. The notes on the harmonica are intelligently and conveniently placed to enable you to catch breath. For example, blowing into the third hole produces G; breathing in through the second hole will also produce G, so you can use it to blow in or out as the case may be.
If your song has three keys in it, you would need three different harmonicas. Of course, the 12, 14, and 16-hole models of the chromatic harmonica can be played in any key and so one harmonica will do.
2. Best seller
Did you know the harmonica was the largest selling instrument in the world? According to the 2019 Global Harmonica Sales Market Report, 3 million harmonicas are sold each year. No wonder, we all had it growing up! Compact and personal, this mini, pocketable instrument has been a part of many people’s childhood – a toy that proved to be an ice-breaker starting many a friendship.
Another reason for its popularity might be because anyone playing it sounds pretty good! After all, if you blow into a hole or breathe in, you hit the right note!
Types of harmonicas
There are many different types of harmonicas based on their different sounds: diatonic, chromatic, tremolo, octave, orchestral, and bass. Beginners generally play the diatonic harmonica – these have one key and you need 12 of them to play different keys.
- Blues and folk music sounds good with the diatonic harmonica.
- Chromatic harmonica is best to play Bollywood songs, jazz, and classical music.
3. A great aerobic exercise
As you will be blowing in and out a lot when you play the mouth organ, like all wind instruments, you will be exercising your breathing tract. So, playing regularly will add another good rhythmic breathing exercise to your regimen. It increases your lung capacity as you take deep breaths. A definite reason to play this instrument.
Harry Potter and the mouth organ!
A little titbit for Pottermaniacs: this wind instrument was included in J K Rowling’s Potter series – the chief antagonist Voldemort stole a mouth organ in his younger years. A minor infraction seemingly at the time but a portend of things to come…
4. Spatial (special?) music
The mouth organ has been where you and I have never gone – to space! It was the first instrument to have been played there. Turns out this organ was one of many items that astronauts have smuggled into space!
It was in 1965 that American aviator, Walter Schirra, took it on board the Gemini VI-A and played a prank on his crewmates saying he had seen a UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) – referring to Santa Claus! And then he played “Jingle Bells” to them on a harmonica that was 3.5 cm long. A special (spatial!) experience indeed!
Musical genres on the mouth organ
You can play classical, blues, film music, jazz, country, rock, jazz, dance, and whatever else you have your heart set on. You may even have heard Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Shakira, and John Lennon play the mouth organ.
5. A mouth organ is played with a bullet
A bullet is a special mike that ensures you can hear this tiny instrument clearly. It helps the mouth organ produce a discernible sound – especially useful when played with even louder instruments as accompaniments.
Read more fun facts – what record-breaking events have been accomplished with the mouth organ?
6. Largest manufacturer of harmonicas
German instrument maker, Matthias Hohner, who was a clockmaker as well as an instrument maker crafted the harmonica in 1857. His factory was the largest one for harmonicas in his lifetime with the American civil war giving him a huge market. His company Hohner makes a few million harmonicas every year! Though the company is not directly owned by his family today, it is still a leading brand in mouth organs.
You may have played the mouth organ by yourself and been happy with the sounds you produced. Good for you! A stressbuster, a breathing exercise, and a means to explore your creative skills all in one. However, if you want to really learn how to play it, it would be better to take some mouth organ lessons. Watch as Corky gives you some FREE pointers in this mouth organ class. Then, you can ‘blow’ your audience away with your harmonious playing!