Many beginning players are confused about harmonica notes, particularly since some of them appear to be “missing”. This articles shows the notes on a harmonica, and the reasoning behind their layout.
Harmonicas come in a variety of keys (click here for more about harmonica keys and note names). The most common harmonica key is C, the notes on a C harmonica are shown below. In the diagram blow means the note when blowing into a hole, draw means the note when breathing in. This note layout is called the “Richter tuning”, is used for most harmonicas and is shown below.
Look at holes 4 to 7. The notes from these holes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, which make up a C major scale. Not surprising for a harmonica in the key of C.
However holes 1 to 4 are different. Starting from hole 1, the notes are C, D, E, G, G, B, D, C. Very confusing. Unlike holes 4 to 7, these lower notes do not make up a major scale. However look at blow notes 1 to 4, which are C, E, G and C. These notes make a C major “chord”. Blow into the first 4 holes to get this chord. Can you hear how these notes seem to “agree” with each other when played together?
Now look at holes 4 to 7. The blow notes are also C, E, G and C. Another C chord. Similarly, the blow notes for holes 7 to 10 are also C, E, G and C. Yet another C chord. So, all the blow notes on a C harmonica come from the C chord. This is no accident, and is the reason why harmonica blow notes are arranged this way.
Similarly, the draw notes on holes 1 to 4 are D, G, B and D. These notes all come from the G chord, which is a very important one when playing in the key of C. Blow and draw repeatedly on holes 1 to 4. Can you hear how the two chords seem to match each other?.
Providng these chords in the bottom 4 holes whilst allowing a major scale in the middle holes is the basic reasoning behind the Richter tuning system used on most harmonicas.
The Missing Harmonica Notes
As outlined above, arranging the harmonica to provide chords means that some notes are “missing”, particularly in the bottom holes. However a common harmonica technique called “bending” allows these missing notes to be played.
Bending harmonica notes involves changing tongue position, mouth shape and breath pressure, and is often very challenging for harmonica students. Detailed instructions for bending notes are in the online lessons at my Harmonica Academy site.
Bending a note lowers its pitch. Bending is done mostly on the draw holes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6, and blow holes 8, 9 and 10. The diagram below shows the notes commonly obtained through bending on a C harmonica.
The regular blow and draw notes for the C harmonica are shown in bold. Looking at the draw bends, notice that a single extra note is available from holes 1, 4 and 6. Some players also bend draw hole 5 a little, but strictly speaking an extra note is not available by doing this.
The 2 hole draw allows two extra bent notes, while the 3 hole draw allows 3 extra bent notes. Controlling all of these notes takes much practice, but is a skill known to most advanced players.
A single extra bent note is available from blow holes 8, 9 and 10. A very small group of players can get two distinct bent notes from the 10 blow.
Even more notes are available using an advanced technique called overblowing.
How do you remember the harmonica notes?
Given that 12 harmonica keys are available, each with different notes, the task of remembering them all would appear overwhelming to new players. Good news. It is not necessary to remember all of the notes. Many players would be hard pressed to name them, especially for the less frequently used keys.
Most players instead remember “scale degrees”. These are closely related to the “do re mi fa so la ti do”, which many learn at school. This technique allows tunes and solos to be understood without needing the note names for specific music keys. There is much more to this than outlined here. Suffice to say however that an elephant’s memory is not required to progress with the harmonica.
All that is needed is a love for the instrument, persistance, good instruction and like minded musical peers. All of these can be found.