Eight years ago, my parents suggested that I learn how to play the piano. From my very first lesson, I knew I was really interested in music. Following a visit to the Research Laboratory on World Music at the University of Montreal, I decided to try an instrument from another family of instruments than the chordophone family to which the piano belongs. The harmonica quickly drew my attention because it has enormous potential despite its diminutive size compared to the piano. In addition, the harmonica belongs to the family of aerophones which I did not know very much about at the time.
Let me tell you about this simple yet powerful instrument.
The harmonica originated in Asia. Before it became the instrument we know today, the word "harmonica" referred to instruments of a very different kind. The glass harmonica, pictured below, is one example. It is made of a number of crystal containers or glasses filled with water at different levels and which you rub with a moistened finger.
A 16th century Jesuit priest, Father Amiot, sent back a cheng from China. It produces a sound by means of free reeds that move when you blow on them. You can see that this is very much like the way the modern harmonica works.
After Father Amiot's cheng arrived in Europe, instrument makers tried to improve the way it worked by trying to make it sound like a human voice. The first prototype of the harmonica like the one we know today was built by Buschman in 1821 in Vienna. He called it an "aura". A second model was built by Richter who added inspirited notes (produced by breathing in) to the "aura". Just 30 years later, Mathias Honner began to market the harmonica. He built a harmonica factory in 1857 and made 700 harmonicas in the first year. Ten years later, he produced 22,000 and in 1887 production rose to a million harmonicas.
In 1862, the harmonica was exported to North America where it was a great success. The first recordings with the instrument were made in 1924. The harmonica is still used by a number of American musicians like Larry Adler. W. Boivin, Y. Lambert and John and Pip Murphy are Canadian "mouth harp" artists. Our forefathers earned their living from their land by the sweat of their brow but they also liked to get together to sing, dance and play sports. There are many reasons why men would meet in the church hall, at weddings or simply at parties. These reunions were an integral part of rural life. The harmonica was an important daily amusement for these people.
We can see that while the harmonica is a very old instrument, it is still played today. Our Canadian ancestors kept them within easy reach and enjoyed playing them in their moments of leisure and entertainment after a hard day's work.