Three Steps to Chromatic Harmonica

The chromatic harmonica is much less played than the diatonic harmonica for two reasons: firstly, because of the player's obligation to master musical theory -- which brings the chromatic harmonica closer to other, more complex wind instruments -- and secondly, because of its more complex assembly when it comes to cleaning the instrument. There may also be the question of tone, but this concerns personal preference more than technical obstacle. But whatever the reason may be, the chromatic harmonica's lack of exposition is unfortunate, because it is in truth a very elegant and versatile instrument (click here for an example). This article will focus on the first element mentioned above: how to master musical theory with the harmonica. For those who wish to learn how to clean a chromatic harmonica, I recommend viewing Brendan Power's excellent videos on chromatic harmonica assembly (click here for the video). Perhaps one day I will write an article about this as well.

This Factoidz article is part of a series I am currently writing on the technique of the harmonica, both chromatic and diatonic. Here is a complete list of my harmonica-related Factoidz articles:

I have also written two articles on musical theory:

The chromatic harmonica is much less played than the diatonic harmonica for two reasons: firstly, because of the player's obligation to master musical theory -- which brings the chromatic harmonica closer to other, more complex wind instruments -- and secondly, because of its more complex assembly when it comes to cleaning the instrument. There may also be the question of tone, but this concerns personal preference more than technical obstacle. But whatever the reason may be, the chromatic harmonica's lack of exposition is unfortunate, because it is in truth a very elegant and versatile instrument, as world-class players such as Toots Thielemans, Franz Chmel, Gabriel Grossi, and Gregoire Maret, have proven. This article will focus on the first element mentioned above: how to master musical theory with the harmonica. For those who wish to learn how to clean a chromatic harmonica by disassembling it, I recommend viewing Brendan Power's excellent videos on chromatic harmonica assembly:

If these videos failed nonetheless to convince any hesitating players, Hohner has released the CX-12 model, which is unique inasmuch as it has snap on a slider and cover plate, and hence almost no screws  at all, and is said to be extremely user-friendly.

Following are three steps to get anybody started on the chromatic harmonica. These simple 3 steps are like an invitation, or an open door, to the instrument, as long as the student accepts to work hard and to take the instrument seriously. It should be noted that these are basic technical exercises, and I strongly recommend the student of harmonica to experiment and learn things independently as well. Nonetheless, in my view, these three steps should not be neglected.

1) The student of chromatic harmonica should learn to play an ascending chromatic scale on the instrument. A chromatic scale is a scale composed entirely of half-tones (or half-step, semi-tones, etc. same thing), and cycles through all twelve notes of western music (click here for an example of a chromatic scale). By learning how to play the chromatic scale, the student of chromatic harmonica will be able to locate all of the notes on the instrument. Once the student has achieved this, he may proceed to the next step.

2) The student of chromatic harmonica should learn to play all 12 major scales in the Ionian mode (click here for an example of a major scale). It might take a while to figure each scale out, but this step is just as essential as the preceding one (click here to hear all 12 major and minor scales). I recommend playing all scales in a two-octave range in order to understand how they loop in the instrument. By learning how to play all 12 major scales, the student of chromatic harmonica will be able to understand the dynamics of the instrument. Once the student has achieved this, he may proceed to the next step.

3) The student of chromatic harmonica should learn to play all 12 major scales in the six other modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian (click to hear each of these modes in the key of C or do). Note: all scales on the example page are the seven modes of the C or do  major scale. If the student already has good musical theory, this step should not take as long as the two first steps. I have elsewhere written an article entitled Musical Improvisation 101: the Seven Modes of the Major Scale which I recommend to anyone who needs a simple reference regarding modes.

If the student of chromatic harmonica correctly assimilates all three of these steps, he is well on his way to a basic mastery of the instrument. Some professionals do prefer other methods; in his intervention at the International Course for Concert Harmonica, which can be read here, Franz Chmel actually does not recommend learning scales on the harmonica, but stresses the importance of sight reading. Although I understand this argument in the light of concert harmonica, I nonetheless disagree with recommendation; especially if the player does not intend to play concert harmonica exclusively. I recommend playing from thirty to sixty minutes a day whenever possible. And have fun!

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Posted on Oct 30, 2011