How to learn & play sheet music with diatonic harmonica

Music: Practice & Theory Asked by Barnaba on November 10, 2020

I think ‘just learn to read notes and which holes do what’ isn’t probably the best way – since there are harmonicas tuned to twelve different keys and all differ in note placements.

So I did some research, haven’t found anything conclusive, but here’s my theory of what is probably going to work:

  1. Despite the layout of actual notes differing on harmonicas, their position relative to the key is fixed. So it seems to be possible to learn stuff like ‘4 blow is always key’ or ‘5 blow is always major third of key’.
  2. now if one could learn to read music in that terms instead of note names, one would have much easier time playing different harmonicas.

Is that approach practical? Are there people actually playing that way? How would one learn to read notes in that manner? It seems like it might be just moving the problem – instead of learning twelve different hole layouts you’d have to learn twelve different ways of reading the score.

5 Answers

Some good points have already been made regarding whether this is typical and how feasible it is. One thing you will definitely need is a good understanding of how the harmonica is laid out. This is something that educators have struggled to expedite in their students because the best tools have been the harmonica itself, which is obviously opaque while learning, or pen and paper which is inflexible and time consuming in its own way.

That's why I made an app called Harp Guru. The promo video linked below will explain the features in 4 minutes and the Android play listing is included in the link below that. How it helps.

Answered by Joe Sinfield on November 10, 2020

I think learn to read in D with a D harp treble clef f# and C#.Then play any harp C,G, A etc. as if they're in D If you have some sheet music in C transpose to D on paper read it playing a C harp.You will be able to read and transpose notation. Treat the harmonica as a transposing instrument.

Answered by Mick on November 10, 2020

Yes, all diatonics are layed out the same way, relative to the key. This is especially true of the central octave (holes 4-7). Some experiment with different notes on the lower, incomplete octave (holes 2 and 3).

The easiest thing for a beginner is to get a C harmonica, and seek out tunes in the key of C (or A minor). There's lots of those.

In addition there are lots of songs written in harmonica tabs - replacing the notes with hole numbers (usually negative number for sucking). These are easy for the beginner to use, and they avoid most copyright issues.

The toughest thing for a beginner is producing single notes, as opposed to the 3/4 notes of a chord. By the time you master that you should be comfortable with both tabs and the C scale.

At some point you'll want to play tunes in another key, such as the easy ones F and G. The main value to getting a harmonica in a different key is that you can then play with others. But for your own practice, transposing will work just as well. You might start doing this on paper, converting, for example, the notes to tabs.

Most computer programs that handle scores will do the transposing as well. I'm most familiar with ABCNotation.

Solfège, the do-re-mi notation is used in two ways, fixed and movable. In some languages, like Spanish, it is an absolute pitch, where do is our C. But in English it is often used in a relative sense - do is the major key root. A diatonic harmonica, in any key, can be played in that movable sense.

With a tuner app set to solfege, the notes on my C diatonic are:

      1  2   2   4  5  6   7  8  9   10
blow: do mi  sol do mi sol do mi sol do 
draw; re sol si  re fa la  si re fa  la

But viewed as moveable solfege, all other keyed diatonics have the same (relative) notes.

In tabs the middle octave, regardless of key, is

4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

fa and la are missing in the lower octave, but can be played (in theory) as bends. si is missing from the upper octave.

A chromatic has (typically) 3 octaves, each layed out like the middle one. Pushing in the slide raises each note semitone. It can handle all keys in those octaves with about the same ease as keyboard.

Answered by hpaulj on November 10, 2020

Different people's minds work in different ways, so there is no right or wrong, only what works for you.

Whatever way you choose, you're going to have to be able to switch your brain into different "modes".

An obvious way would be to learn the mapping from (stave position) to (hole position and breath direction). This would necessitate having a mental mode for each instrument key.

This would work for some people. I don't think it would work for me; it's up to you whether it fits how you think.

The way I would choose is to have a mental mode for every written key. So, I look at the key signature, think "OK, this is G major", and put myself in that mental mode: The root is the 2nd line from the bottom of the treble stave, the octave is above the top line, the fifth is two lines above, and so on.

You can probably just set some mental "markers" at key intervals. You don't need to consciously remember that the space above the root note is the second. It's easy to work out, and it will become instinctive unconsciously soon enough anyway.

So here you have a mental mode for every key you want to play in. You don't have to learn the keys corresponding to all 12 root notes; some keys are more common than others. This is familiar to chord-oriented guitarists.

On your diatonic harmonica, now, you just learn how hole positions and breath directions map to positions in the scale. This is what you've described "4th hole blow is the root note"

There are lots of advantages to looking at music like this, to the extent that I'm sure some pianists think about scores this way.

On a harmonica, if you look at scores this way, you can transpose written music just by switching instrument. A pianist who's learnt this way of reading music can transpose by putting their reading mind in one mode and their hands in another (a good trick; some people can definitely do it).

Reading scores in this way also helps contextualise the notes, which helps with anticipation and expression, and helps with learning pieces. You don't just read a 'G' you read a 'root note' and that has some influence on how you might choose to play the note.

However, one complication -- on a C harmonica, you don't always play in C major (nor A minor). Blues musicians usually use "second position" (aka "cross position"). So you would learn another "mental mode" in which the root is "2nd hole draw". A lot of written music is going to be very difficult to play in this position, but it's the position in which the classic rock/blues harmonica sound is played.

Answered by slim on November 10, 2020

Note: I don't play the harmonica

Is that approach practical?

I do not think this would be a practical way to learn the harmonica. As you said, it would most likely just move the problem. It would definitely be a good idea to know what the note's relation to the key (chords, harmonizing, etc.), but not as your sole way of reading a piece of music. At some point, you'll also have to need to know the names of the notes and where they are. If someone asked you to play an E, you wouldn't have to think for a moment to figure out what hole that was. To me, it would be better to spend time memorizing the 12 layouts at the beginning, than memorizing 12 different names for notes. I think it would be much more difficult when actually trying to play a piece to have one name to remember.

Are there people actually playing that way?

I wouldn't know.

How would one learn to read notes in that manner?

You'd have to come up with a way of labeling the notes, maybe using Roman numerals for distance away from the key. For example, C would be i, B would be ii, A would be iii, etc.

I think you should definitely try both ways and see what helps you the most. If you were going to just memorize the note layout, you might want to color code your harmonicas (not sure if this would do anything, but it might be easier to see a green harmonica and associate that with a key, then just a metal colored one.)

To avoid this, you might want to go with a chromatic harmonica. You would be able to avoid all the transposition stuff (but it would be easier for you to transpose if you learned in the beginning). Read about chromatic harmonicas here.


Answered by Jacob Swanson on November 10, 2020

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