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The Origins of the Harmonica

The Origins of the Harmonica


If the harmonica is an instrument of a relatively recent invention (first part of the 19th century), its principle, that of the free reed, is extremely original and undoubtedly one of the keys to its success, goes back very far in time (there about 3000 years old) and in space (Far East). But the "operating principle" of the instrument does not of course mean similarity. Contrary to what we have read here and there, the old instruments which use the principle of the free reed (the sheng is the most famous one) have, apart from this system, only a few real relationships with the reeded harmonica as we know it.



The reed is one of the aerophones, instruments invented by men since the dawn of time to reproduce the human voice or the sounds of nature. De facto, the principle of the reed reproduces the natural system which allows man to speak, sing and emit sounds. The vocal cords obviously act as reeds. In the same way, the reunification of the lips which makes it possible to whistle also plays the role of reeds.

The aerophones invented by men to emit sounds or play music very quickly included two types of reeds: the struck (or beating) reed and then the free reed.

The simple instrumental reed is a thin flexible tongue or a strip of natural material (in reed which naturally has remarkable elastic properties or in wood) than synthetic (plastic) fixed at one of its ends so that the breath of the mouth or a mechanism vibrates. This causes a sound. The simple cane reed is used for the clarinet and the saxophone.

The double reed is used in the oboe, the bassoon, the English horn, the bombardment, and the musette... For example, the oboe player must draw in the lips and pinch the reed between them. The air is thus subjected to a very strong pressure which makes the two tongues of the reed collide and vibrate.

The free reed is very different. It is a small strip of reed, bamboo, metal, or plastic, also attached to one end. The part of this reed thus free is able to vibrate on one side or the other of its axis. An opening (window) is made in the frame support which follows the shape of the tongue. Under the pressure of the air, the tongue or the lamella moves in this way freely by its elasticity alone to return to its place. It thus successively cuts and restores the movement of air which will therefore generate sounds. 

Regardless of the intensity of the air or the amplitude of the movement of the tabs or slats, the vibrations remain constant (isochronous). This means that they go through an always similar number of vibrations whatever the spacing of the slat under the pressure of the air. This allows the musician to change the loudness of the piece being played without altering the pitch.

As a result, the reed vibrates freely according to the way the player presses or blows his instrument, without the need to plug a hole (as the clarinetist or saxophonist must do). This free reed system originates from the Far East and has undergone many changes over the centuries. In fact, today many very different instruments use the principle of free reeds.

The oldest and Most traditional are the mouth organs of the Hmong people called qeej or gaeng or kheng; the Chinese sheng (or lusheng); the khaen, ken, kyen, or even kh\in of different peoples of South East Asia; the NGO or the enggung found in Indonesia and which is perhaps the oldest of these instruments with a free reed and which is a form of jew's harp whose use will spread throughout the world. On the other hand, the most recent of these types of instruments with free reeds are European such as the accordion, the concertina, and of course the harmonica.



Chinese legends credit the Empress of China Nyu Qua (around 3000 BC) with the invention of the oldest known free-reed instrument, the yu. This "motherhood" is taken for certain by the Chinese since the discovery of a yu in poor condition during excavations undertaken in 1973 around Xian, the cradle of the Han dynasty. But it is more than likely that this yu is only a "scholarly" development (it was a court instrument) of different types of jew's harp (also called in the West "Jewish harp, since the biblical episode of David) of which several four-thousand-year-old specimens have also been found in central China. illustrate a poem or a song nson.

Several Chinese bas-reliefs, statues, or statuettes dating from the first millennium BC represent musicians of the imperial court or the entourage of powerful nobles playing a kind of gourd surmounted by five pipes which are named shengs (literally: the sublime voice). Finally, the sheng is mentioned in one of the oldest Chinese texts written in the Han language, the Che-King (or Book of Odes) under the name of yu translated into Han by the term shenghuang, which will give its name sheng.

These archaeological discoveries have established the idea that China was therefore the cradle of free-reed instruments, a notion generally prevalent in most manuals concerning the harmonica or the accordion which are de facto the distant descendants of this sheng.

Other work by several specialists in the Far East, notably that of Professor Alain Swietlik in the 1990s, suggests that the sheng is only an adaptation of the khêne, a mouth organ in the shape of a flute from Pan to a double row of pipes and which is still considered today as the oldest national instrument of Laos. The Chinese word sheng could also come from a sinicization of the Laotian term khêne.


The khêne player blows into an orifice located in a block of wood which partly envelops all the pipes. On each pipe, at the place enclosed in this block, a rectangular opening has been made on which is a free reed cut from a rectangle of bamboo or metal. The khês have between eight and sixteen pipes of different lengths. The column of air created by each pipe is tuned by the frequency of vibration of the free reed. Each pipe includes a hole that can only sound if it is sealed. The khêne player while blowing and aspirating (this is the very principle of the free reed) therefore holds the block of wood between his two hands, the tips of the fingers and the thumb in front of the holes in order to make this or that vibrate reed according to his desire to obtain such a series of notes. The khêne is played without any interruption of sound and has a polyphonic expression since several playing holes can be closed simultaneously.

This very complex instrument may therefore be a derivative of the sheng. Or, it was borrowed by the Chinese (who repeatedly invaded and dominated Laos). In fact, the oldest shengs discovered in good condition in China and therefore really identifiable as such come from the tombs of nobles like Ma Wang Tuy or the Marquis Yi of Zeng, buried in the 5th century BC, a date much more recent than that (arguably more legendary than historical) attributed to his imperial invention.

This sheng is then an instrument made from a dried and hollowed-out gourd on which are fixed bamboo pipes arranged in two parallel rows. The reeds (narrow tongues) are cut from bamboo and then coarsely thinned. It is possibly a simplified and somewhat crude form of Laotian oak. But in Chinese mythology, the shape of the sheng evokes the wings of the phoenix and thereby the very idea of resurrection and immortality of the soul. In most of the old shengs that we know (often dating from the Tang dynasty around the 7th century of our era), the instrument has seventeen pipes, four of which are neither played nor sound and do not probably serve only to balance the instrument


Be that as it may, Laotian or Chinese, instruments with free reeds, derived from the khêne or the sheng, are legion in the Far East from the years 600-800 AD. Over time, reeds were made of metal, often weighted with wax so that their intonation could be adjusted. Then in order to avoid oxidation due to the humidity generated by the mouth of the player, these reeds are coated with a layer of malachite... All improvements make this type of instrument a masterpiece of complexity. It should be noted that the five notes of the shengs (in order: mi, la, re, sol, do) form a pentatonic scale.

There are in fact very many variants of the sheng or the khêne. For example, we must point out the so-called Shanghai sheng, of modest dimensions and widely used in sacred or secular music; the Ku kuai of mountain religious ceremonies; the Shangdong fang sheng with a square wooden body, also very popular; the Buddhist sheng, used in the monasteries of northern China and even Tibet; the popular bawu and du from northern China and ulusheng from southern China; the mangtong, a sort of "bass sheng" one to two meters in length found in many Chinese orchestras; the Korean seanghwang, used in the religious and classical music of this particular civilization which is introduced by the Chinese to Korea around the 1st century BC; the Japanese sho, also reserved for these musical and which comes from a gift from the Emperor of China to his Japanese counterpart in the 8th century. 

Southeast Asia remains very close to the most primitive forms of the sheng, a mouth organ with two parallel rows of pipes found among the mountain tribes of Laos of course, and also of Vietnam (under the names of tödiap, pi Lao Luong, pidoï, ala), from Cambodia (sneng and peïpok), everywhere in Thailand (pidjoum), in Burma (called the kwai), in Borneo among the Malays (the sumpoton) and the Dayak tribes (the keluriet) further still in South Asia, India, Assam, and Bangladesh.

It should be noted that in the practice of these Far Eastern instruments, the musicians will create and develop playing techniques that announce those which the harmonica players will practice: trills, language effects, vibratos, imitation of sounds produced by animals, sounds of nature, of the human voice...

The Origins of the Harmonica part 2


From the Chinese Empire and the Far Eastern States, the sheng and derivative instruments will actually reach Europe later.

It was with the invasion of China by the Mongols in the 13th century and the establishment of a dynasty of emperors descended from Genghis Khan that the shengs spread throughout Central Asia: Mongolia of course, but also Turkestan, India, and Persia. It should be noted that this type of free-reed instrument was already found in the Persian Empire at an earlier time. The sheng was most likely introduced in Persia around the 10th century, even if it remained only marginally used in Perso-Iranian music. We have precise descriptions and engravings of derivatives of the sheng in certain courts of Persian nobles under the names of mushtak, sini (proving the Chinese origin of these instruments), or, more frequently, shubshik.

Several authors believe that free-reed instruments from the East were already known in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. This is possible given the continuous and sustained traffic between the Mediterranean world, India, and China along the Silk Road. But it must be recognized that if this was the case, we have not kept any trace of it. The most complete studies (from Annie Bélis, a specialist in ancient music) mention numerous instruments with reeds but no free reeds. Similarly, the idea has been put forward that the sheng would have been introduced in Italy by Marco Polo, but again, there is no trace of a musical instrument with a free reed in the very precise statements of the objects brought back from the Far East by the famous explorer. Other authors have also claimed that the Tartars (a branch of the Mongols) who conquered Russia brought the sheng there and that, from Moscow, it would thus have passed to the West. This seems to be just speculation. All these hypotheses, somewhat plausible are not based on any material evidence.

It is in fact in the XVIIth century that we find in Europe an effective description of instruments with a free reed. The musicologist Michael Pretorius, speaking of the Far East, mentions in 1619 in his work Syntagma Musicum "blown" organs which could have a free reed. However, its description remains too vague for us to really say that it is a sheng or a similar instrument. In truth, the shengs and the instruments derived from them are described and called "Oriental mouth organs'' by the Franciscan monk Marin Mersenne (born in La Flêche in 1588, died in 1648) as stated in his scholarly works Harmonie Universelle then Cogita Phyisco Mathematica, written between 1636 and 1644, when this book was published in Paris. Mersenne himself never went to the Orient, but his interest in physics and the instruments that used the new principles of the time led him to correspond with the greatest mathematicians of his time, French, German, or Italian.  It was probably through the latter that he was led to describe the instrumental system of the sheng, hence the ever-renewed hypothesis of the Marco Polo vector! Be that as it may, Mersenne describes, for the first time in the West and in detail, a Far Eastern instrument with a free reed which is probably an oak tree brought back from or observed in the courts of Laos or of the king of Siam (current Thailand) probably by Venetian ambassadors. But the many approximations and errors that can be found in the description made by the Franciscan show that he himself had never seen such an instrument.

From there, mentions and descriptions of Far Eastern instruments multiply in European works. In the 1680s, the Italian Franciscus Blanchini offers us a first sketch (very erroneous by the way) of an "Asian mouth organ" in his work De Tribus Generibus instrumentorum Musicae Veterum Organicae Dissertation. This drawing would represent a sheng brought back to Rome by Father Philippe Fouquet.

It is in the same way and with the same errors and approximations that the Italian Filippo Bonanni draws and describes an instrument once again called the "Asian mouth organ" which is undoubtedly a Khêne or something similar. in his Gabinetto Armonico, published in 1722. This leads one to suspect that this author did not see this type of instrument himself and that he probably described it according to what Blanchini said about it!

Previously, an inventory of the collection of the Kingdom of Denmark written in 1674 mentions the presence of a Khêne in its cupboards. The anonymous reviewer (who obviously does not know the music well) summarily describes this instrument as "a bamboo cane organ from India".

Was it after seeing this instrument in the Danish royal collection that Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), born in Halle, professor of medicine and physiology at the University of Copenhagen, began to make a reed instrument himself? Free reed? Still, Kratzenstein - whose most important work concerns the exploration of the applications of electricity to medical therapy - was undoubtedly the very first European to make this kind of instrument in 1779. He only did so with the specific aim of obtaining a prize in a competition organized by the Russian Imperial Academy of Saint Petersburg, of which Kratzenstien was an eminent member. For this contest dedicated to the "mysteries of the sounds of the human voice", the Russian Academy asked to accomplish two tasks: 1) to determine the nature and the character of the vowels (a e i o u); 2) build a new musical instrument that would most faithfully reproduce the sounds of the human voice pronouncing these vowels. Kratzenstein won the prize, richly endowed, by presenting his invention: the machine using a free reed connected to various resonators which allow the instrumentalist to musically simulate the sounds of vowels! Several authors have maintained that Kratzenstein would have had a real Chinese sheng in his hands in Saint Petersburg, this instrument being then in possession of the tsars via the Tartar Emperors. Others mention the possession of a real Chinese sheng by the Bavarian violinist and instrument maker Johann Wilde who would have played it at the court of the Tsar in Saint Petersburg around the 1770s and who would therefore have inspired Kratzenstein's invention.

Finally, several Russian authors (such as Alfred Mirek) believe that the true designer of Kratzenstein's "invention" was the Russian organ builder Frank Kirsnik, who allegedly sold his innovation to the Danish scientist, which would no doubt be used by the suite in the orchestrion, an invention of George Joseph Vogler that uses the free reed concept to obtain all the notes of the scale. It is a fact that this orchestrion is really the first instrument with a free reed design widespread in Europe. But the design differed a lot from Far Eastern instruments which may also make one think that it is an original invention, a very late European discovery of the principle of the free reed.

Apart from the unmistakable invention of Vogler, all other claims are not based on any evidence as demonstrated by researchers Christian Ahrens and Jonas Braasch. And it is a fact that Kratzenstein, who was an author as precise as he was rigorous, in no way mentioned his observation of any Asian instrument. And it is likely that the instrument called by itself "the talking machine" and which earned the prize of the Russian Academy (the workmanship of which is very different from the khêne or the sheng) is in fact of his own invention.

The person who, in the 18th century, did the most to make free-reed instruments known in the West was unquestionably Father Joseph Marie Amiot (born in Toulon 1718-1793). Amiot was a Jesuit missionary who practiced in China from 1750 when he landed in Macau until his death. Endowed with a solid missionary experience and a remarkable sense of diplomacy, Amiot will succeed in becoming an adviser and close friend of Emperor Quien Long, whom he helped write his Memoirs which are also an essay on the conception of enlightened despotism in the manner of the Emperors of China. But Father Amiot did not limit himself to this great enterprise. Very quickly learning Han and Manchu, the language of the Tsing dynasty then in power in China, Father Amiot translated into French many fundamental Chinese works including the Ten Precepts of Yong Tcheng, the Praise of the City of Moukden by Quien Long himself as well as the famous The Art of War by Sun Zi which the European courts discovered with astonishment.

Father Amiot also wrote a large number of works himself with very scientific precision and rigor in all fields: treatises, essays, dictionaries, and grammar of the languages ​​of China. He maintains an abundant correspondence with the main scholars of Europe which largely contributes to Westerners discovering Chinese knowledge and inventions: astronomy, medicine, physics, literature, philosophy, and religion... On the ethnomusicological level, he also wrote several fundamental works such as Modern Chinese music, a work which has unfortunately disappeared, and finally his Chinese Entertainment published in 1779. This last work consists of music notated in the Chinese manner, in fact, scores written at the Court of the Emperor, then transcribed according to a "European" notation on a staff. It is in these musical works that Father Amiot describes in detail the construction, use, and way of playing the sheng. The Jesuit missionary discusses the principle of the sheng but does not seem to fully understand the principle of the free reed and focuses somewhat too much on the similarities of the sheng with flutes and even clarinets. It has also been repeatedly claimed that Father Amiot would have smuggled Chinese instruments including shengs into France. But, again, these allegations could never be proven.

It seems that the first exact and detailed description of the shengs and its principle is the work of the German physicist Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827). A tireless traveler, a fine observer, and a rigorous scientist, Chladni - in addition to his relevant studies on meteorites - can be considered the founder of modern acoustics (the famous "acoustic figures of Chladni"). He invented several musical instruments such as the clavicylinder or euphone which uses the free reed, composed of metal rods that are vibrated by glass rods and whose sound, of great purity, substantially resembles those of the 'harmonica! The euphone will be perfected by Chladni and some other physicists and will become a variant of the organ around 1820. The first concert of this type of instrument was given at the Cathedral of Beauvais in 1827.

Origins of the Harmonica Part 3


It should be noted that the clavicylinder was also one of the many glass instruments invented and used in the 18th century. Some authors even maintain that Chladni was inspired by his predecessors or his contemporaries to develop his clavicylinder. But he was the only one to use the principle of the free reed. Among these glass instruments, we must obviously mention the harmonica or physharmonica which has little connection with its namesake to which we are devoting this article. This first "harmonica" was an auto phone composed of a series of crystal glasses as pure as possible which were tuned to varying degrees by pouring more or less water into the glasses! Depending on the water level in each glass, the sound is higher or lower. 

The player of this type of harmonica rubs his wet fingers on the edges of the glasses, which enables him to play some pieces of music. An Irishman named Richard Pockrich would have first played this instrument in public around 1743. He was followed by Christophe Willilbald Gluck himself who performed the physharmonica in London at the Haymarket Theater in 1746. His fingers then twirled on a set of 26 glasses as he was accompanied by a large orchestra, probably adapting a concerto for violin or harpsichord and orchestra.

The famous founding father of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin, helped by the English instrument maker Charles James, undoubtedly attended a demonstration of this physharmonica (perhaps by Pockrich himself who made a career as a famous musician in England). It as in any case on this principle that he invented an armonica (or harmonica too!), a much more complex and finished instrument since he assembled a series of semi-spherical basinets in pure crystal arranged on an axis that a system of pedals operated when the player rotates. Each half sphere was wet with each turn of the wheel by passing through a box filled with more or less acidic water! Each of these spheres was of a different color, representing as many notes. 

Then, the harmonica player would run his fingers over the edge of the sphere to obtain the desired notes! This astonishing and complex instrument had its hour of glory, notably with a blind musician Marianne Davies (1743- c.1816), daughter of the composer Richard Davies, a young multi-instrumentalist prodigy who became a renowned virtuoso of the glass harmonica. after meeting Franklin around 1761. She demonstrated her talent in various circles in Europe, notably in Vienna for Empress Marie Thérèse. This was where the Mozart family, Leopold, and Wolfgang Amadeus attended his performances. It is reported that Mozart, in homage to his talent, composed 1791 a short quintet for flute, oboe, viola, cello, and armonica. 

Similarly, a certain Muller wrote a Method for harmonica, published in Leipzig in 1788. But the complexity of this instrument did not guarantee its future. And he did not use the principle of the free reed at all.


Several inventions would lead to the making of the harmonica:

In 1816, the Thuringian Johann Buschmann (1776- c.1837) created a small keyboard instrument, the terpodion that was an adaptation of the free reed system popularized in Europe with Vogler's orchestra coupled with the principle of the jew's harp: a strip of metal was attached to a metal body over a fairly wide opening; air would vibrate the metal strip when it was blown or sucked through the opening. The terpodion was made up of an assembly of bands without semitones as in the jew's harp (six pre-tuned bands). After various adjustments, the terpodion will become the harmonium that would obtain resounding success as much among missionaries, street evangelists, or itinerant musicians.

It was Johann's son, the watchmaker Christian Friedrich Buschmann (1805-1864) who invented the aura or mundaeoline around 1821. He assembled around fifteen small pipes with the aim of first making a practical tuner that could be put in the pocket. The interest that his aura met with children lead him to make a musical toy with a metal body four inches wide that could play 21 notes on the condition of blowing and drawing. He was even surprised by the quality of his invention (he was only sixteen at the time!) but worried about how difficult it might be to play correctly. 

Despite this, the aura met with some success in Austria and lower Germany. It should be noted, however, that the story of the invention of the harmonica by Buschmann - constantly repeated and without any critical sense in all the histories of the harmonica - was for the first time written and published in 1938 (!)  by one of his descendants Heinrich Buschmann, close to the Nazi party, for treaties intended to proclaim the superiority of the "Aryan" race (German in Nazi jargon) over the rest of the world. These treatises then claim, to the point of ridicule, that most modern inventions are German!

Several German researchers today even suggest that the date of 1821 was falsified in order to make Buschmann the inventor of the harmonica, while the aura dates from much later (around 1830-40). But the assertions of Heinrich Buschmann have spread widely through the publications of the German company Hohner (which identifies itself with the harmonica) and in which certain leading researchers such as the Anglo-Americans Pat Missin or Tom Winslow Yerxa see in it quite a "propaganda" enterprise. It is on the other hand probable that Buschmann is really the designer and the popularizer of the accordion, another instrument with a free reed, whose success will be as planetary as that of the harmonica.

As for the idea of ​​an instrument like the mouth harmonica, an instrument with a free reed or a simple child's toy, it was definitely in tune with the times almost everywhere in Europe and North America. The German Johannes Weinrich, a shoemaker from Heiligenstadt, developed his Psallmelodikon around 1828, an instrument consisting of a copper tube with six finger-operated holes and an assembly of 28 silver alloy valves based on the principle of the free reed. In Graslitz in Bohemia, Meisel, and Langhammer also make mouth organs. In 1829, not far from there, in Klingenthal, Johann Wilhelm Glier also manufactures and markets the same type of instruments. 

The Englishman Charles Wheatfield develops the symphonium, a metal box then the aeola which will later give the melodica composed of buttons allowing one to change the key. Around the 1830s, the French Lecrosnier and Tremblay developed the harmony phone on the same principle. Still, in France, and perhaps as early as 1827, Marie Candide Buffet also registered the invention of a metal mouth harmonica which met with enough success to create a factory that would be directed by a certain Jacob Alexandre. At the same time, Mieg invented a mouth organ in Spain, of which a few examples have been found. Around 1824-7, the Viennese George Anton Reinlein registered the invention of a "harmonica made in the style of those of ancient China" and, from 1828, he sold his mundharmonica almost everywhere.

In 1830, Friedrich Hotz produced in his factory in Knitlingen (in Württemberg) mouth organs designed on the model of Reinlein. In this region of Germany, many watchmakers had to face a serious crisis in the market for cuckoo clocks and traditional clocks. Some, therefore, converted to the manufacture of musical instruments. Anyway, these mouth organs (called mundharmonika, mundharmonica, or mundaeoline) were composed of 20 reeds and 10 holes mounted on a kind of cedar comb with segments of wood separating a pair of reeds. You would blow or draw to obtain the preset notes on the white keys of the piano.

Exactly on the same dates, an American inventor (we owe him a model of a water pump widely used in the United States in the 19th century) James Amireaux Bazin (1798-1883) also built free reed instruments, one of which is called the 'harmonica!. Copies, made by hand around 1821-26, can be seen in various American museums, including the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

It is a diatonic instrument on two octaves in the key of B, comprising 15 reeds. It is unclear whether this Bazin invention precedes or anticipates similar European inventions. But another American, from New York this time, Lewis Zwahlen also built harmonicas of this type, during exactly the same years. These harmonicas are sold as such in mail-order catalogs (1830) in the "curiosities" or "toys" section. Manufacturers advertise them in American newspapers of the time, from the London Journal to the Brooklyn Eagle to the Watchman's Advocate!

All these instruments often have the common characteristics of being inexpensive, compact, and easy to play if you just play a few popular tunes. They are often freaks of curiosity, benefiting from eye-catching newspaper advertisements. It is likely that sales of these instruments were substantial and almost all of them met with mistrust or even hostility from music schools and teachers and learned academies. Several authors even report violent reactions in Germany against mundharmonicas and accordions accused of "destroying the know-how and the livelihood of real musicians" with the sacking of certain factories!

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