Harmonica History

A. The harmonica it is believed to have begun in China with an instrument called Sheng. Sheng is probably the 1st known mouth-blown free reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes and its history dates back to almost 3000 years. Harmonica, as we know it today, is a wind and free reed instrument and it is highly typical in a few ways.

1st: It is the only instrument which is not played by player’s fingers. It is played by the movement of player’s mouth.

2nd : It is the only instruments which is required to be kept moving while being played whereas all other instruments remain stationary i.e. the instruments do not move while playing.

3rd : It is the only instruments that plays both, by breathing in (drawing) and breathing out (blowing) whereas all other wind instruments are played by blowing.

4th : It is the only instrument which a player cannot see while playing.
The harmonica has a long history. Many articles written on this subject reflect an underplay of achievements of other people and countries and in some, there are traces of deliberate falsifications and omissions of facts. It would be unfair and unjust to give credit for inventing harmonica to one single person or company and not to mention names of people whose efforts and works have benefited making of harmonica the way we know it today. While linking harmonica to Sheng, we must bear in mind that Sheng was played with fingers.

B. The harmonica is believed to have evolved in the 19th century in Europe. Many people were working and experimenting on development of harmonica during the same period and though many people contributed to the development of harmonica, the 1st Harmonica was made by a 16 year old lad Christian Buschmann in 1821. Bushmann called his instrument “Mundaeoline” or “Aura”. It was 4 inches long, having 15 steel reeds (later increased to 21 reeds) mounted side by side and capable of playing in 6 part harmony.
The Chinese Sheng had bamboo reeds but Buschmann devise metal reeds for his instruments, another milestone. Buschmann is said to have patented his instruments but there are no surviving examples or pictures of the instrument he made. The earliest reference to his instrument is found in a letter Buschmann wrote to his father in 1828 telling him about the instrument. It is true however that the tale of invention of harmonica begins with the year 1821 and it is believed that initial designs of Buschmann were largely imitated and modified by others.

C. In 1824, George Reinlein of Vienna was granted a patent for an instrument akin to harmonica but it was bellows-driven and cannot be called “Mundharmonika” in the real sense of the term. Nevertheless, he was certainly making harmonicas by 1828 according to some evidence that is available today.

D. Vienna was thus an early centre of Harmonica production. By mid-1830s, a company formed by Wilhelm Thie was most powerful and successful harmonica manufacturer with invention of Tremolo Harmonica (Wiener System) to his credit.

E. An instrument that had some semblance of present day harmonica was made by James Bazin in USA mostly in the year 1830. It was truly a mouth-blown free reed instrument and much like the Buschmann’s Aura, it had 15 blow-reeds and could play two octaves.

Around same time, Lewis Zwahlen was also manufacturing harmonica like instruments. His instrument was mounted on a wooden comb that was hand crafted and had 3 groups of notes. A player had to jump from one group to another to play notes provided in them.
All these harmonica like reed instrument had one thing in common – they all had just the blow-reeds, like the Bass harmonica that we have today.

F. Draw Reeds:
Shortly after making his instrument Aura in 1821, Buschmann began making bellows-driven instruments. He called them "Handharmonika" or "Handaeoline" – which later came to be known as Aeolina; the earliest member of accordion family.
As we know, Accordion has two sets of reeds - one responding to bellowing IN and the other responding to bellowing OUT. Buschmann’s Aeolina had blow as well as draw reeds. And again, the man responsible for giving rise to use of Draw reeds was Buschmann. His concept of draw reeds was borrowed by many people in development of harmonica.
Though draw reeds were used right from early 1820s, it took over 30 years before draw reeds were used in making harmonicas along with blow reeds.
It is said that one Mr Richter borrowed this concept of Buschmann to make a harmonica with blow as well as draw reeds but Richter being a very common name then, the exact identity of this Richter is nebulous. Many articles about the history of the harmonica contain 2nd, 3rd and even 4th hand information and chronology of events and developments raises some questions. No one can say for sure which Richter made the 1st harmonica with blow and draw reeds, and for that matter whether Richter made such an instrument at all. This Richter is also credited with a modified tuning of harmonicas – the Richter Tuning that we know today.
Harmonica Historian P Missin discusses these points in one of his articles and asks himself “Who was this Richter and what exactly did he invent?”.
Probabilities suggest that Richter may have devised and come up with his instrument in somewhere around 1857. But can he be credited for ingenuity shown in (a) adding second set of draw reeds to harmonica and (b) Altered Tuning – the so called Richter Tuning?
Developments during the period prior to 1857 show that draw reeds were already in use from the time Buschmann made his Aeolina and the Tuning Scheme devised and used in Richter System Harmonicas was already used in the Viennese Octave and Tremolo harmonicas made in 1830s.

G. Commercial Production:
In Vienna, harmonicas with chambers were sold from a little before 1824. A violin manufacturer Mr. Meisel from Germany bought one such harmonica and copied it. By 1827 he had produced hundreds of them. History has it that in 1830, Christan Messner also copied a harmonica his neighbour had brought from Vienna and with his cousin Christian Weiss, he began producing harmonicas in Trossingen, Germany.
The Seydel family who were originally miners in Saxony, had now begun working as instrument makers and eventually became approved harmonica makers by a decree passed by the Court. The Company named C.A.Seydel Söhne' (C.A. Seydel and Sons) was established on 27th October 1847 with its factory in Klingenthal and Mr Christian August Seydel as its founder. There is enough circumstantial evidence to say that Richter branded instruments were actually made by Seydel.
By 1855, there were at least 3 harmonica-making businesses : C. A. Seydel Söhne, Christian Messner & Co., and Württ. Harmonikafabrik Ch. WEISS. However, C.A. Seydel is still in business and is the Oldest Harmonica Manufacturer in the World today.
Some years later, a Trossingen clockmaker, Matthias Hohner, visited Messner and Weiss and learnt their harmonica construction technique. He then began his own harmonica business. In 1857, he started producing harmonicas. Being a shrewd businessman, Matthias Hohner soon bought out his competitors.
In their first year in business, Hohner made 650 harmonicas. In 1862 Hohner began exporting harmonicas to the United States, which soon became its largest market. Hohner continued to expand the business.
In 1880, Hohner set up mass production assembly lines to turn out harmonicas in unprecedented quantities. By 1887 they were making one million of them annually and by 1920, the figure had risen to 20 million! That same year, the total output of harmonicas from Germany to various countries exceeded 50 million - of these, 22.8 million went to the US, 5.4 million to the UK, 3.1 million to India and 1.3 million to Italy. By then the diatonic harmonica had largely reached its modern form.

H. By the late 19th century, harmonica production was a big business, having evolved into mass-production. New designs were still developed in the 20th century, including the chromatic harmonica, first made by Hohner in 1924, the bass harmonica, and the chord harmonica.

Background – Mouth Organ in Film Industry.
Mouth organ was 1st introduced in film music by Music Director C. Ramchandra in the year 1947. The film was “Shehnai” and the song was “Ana Meri Jaan Meri Jann Sunday Ke Sunday”. The song became an instant hit for two reasons, first the impressive use of mouth organ in the song and second, its Rock and Roll Rhythm which too was used for the 1st time in film songs. This song actually triggered the Golden Era of mouth organ in the film industry.

Following the lead of C Ramchandra, almost every composer started using mouth organ in their songs. Some of the songs that are popular even today as ‘mouth organ songs’ are :

R D Burman was an extremely good player of mouth organ. It was his 1st passion and he used it quite liberally not only in most of his films but he also played it for other composers. The harmonica in songs “Hai Apana Dil To Awara” was played by him. His techniques of playing this instrument were unique and very rarely heard in songs played by other players. In this programme we will demonstrate some of these techniques.

Revival of Mouth Organ
There is no doubt that the instrument is coming back in Jingles and film music, We hear lilting interludes of Hamronica in many songs in the past few years under the baton of composers like Rajesh Roshan, Pritam, Falak Shabbir in films Kite, Metro, Nautanki Sala and many others. Marathi composers Anand Modak, Narendra Bhide, Aparna Sant, Ashok Patki, Avadhoot Gupte too have used harmonica in Marathi songs. We also hear it many South Indian songs.

The story of the harmonica begins with the Chinese Emperor Nyn-Kwya, who in 3000 B. C. invented a free-reed instrument called the "sheng' (sublime voice) which is considered the forerunner of the modern harmonica. The sheng was brought to Europe in the 18th Century. Benjamin Franklin invented Armonica in 1761, also known as Glass Harmonica and his works eventually lead to Harmonica – free reed instrument – as we see it today.

The modern harmonica was invented in 1821 by a German clockmaker named Christian Buschman who put fifteen pitch pipes together to create an odd little instrument. At first harmonicas were produced by clockmakers as a sideline.
In 1857 Matthias Hohner decided to manufacture them on a large scale and went into production in Trossingen, Germany.
Abraham Lincoln is said to be playing Harmonica in periods of depressions.