The principle of the free reed appears to have had its inception in Asia and after spreading there was subsequently introduced into with West where it developed into such instruments as the harmonica, the accordion, the harmonium and the free reed organ. Instruments of this type are based on the principle of a free vibrating reed, unlike the single beating reed of the clarinet or saxophone, and likewise unlike the double reed instruments like the Western oboe, or the Indian shahnai and Chinese sona.

The mouth organ, or sheng, became a mainstay in the music of the courts of ancient China and from here was introduced into Korea as the saeng-whaeng and into Japan as the sho.

History facts

In the 12th Century B.C. the Emperor of China had his court musicians invent for him what would be called the sheng. This resembled a large bowl with pipe organ like pipes exuding from it. Covering a particular hole would send air through the shengs’ “free-floating” reeds. This was the first free-reeded instrument in existence. It wasn’t until the 1800s when H.M. Hohner constructed the first modern harmonica. He had borrowed the free-floating reeds concept not directly from the sheng of ancient China, but from squeezeboxes and accordions more current in his time.

The term “free-reeds” pertains to the way the harmonicas reeds vibrate. Slits in a comb of a harmonica force air to pass around reeds that float suspended by a pin causing vibrations and ultimately tone and sound. As opposed to “fixed” reeds such as saxophones or clarinets where the reed is attached at a point where the mouth gently squeezes as it blows to force air through it.

History in Europe

In winter of 1636 Marin Mersanne describes in his letters the Sheng, an Asian free-reed wind instrument, thus introducing the principle of the free-reed to Europe.

Near the end of 1776 - French Jesuit Missionary Padre Amiot ships several Shengs from China to Paris.

In summer of 1816 Johann Buschmann, a German organ builder, introduces his Terpodion, a free-reeded keyboard instrument that would serve as a predecessor to both the harmonica and the harmonium.

But the real history of the harmonica begins in the year 1821. It was then that sixteen-year-old Christian Friedrich Buschmann (1805 1902) registered the first European patents for his new musical invention. His so-called “aura” was a free-reed instrument consisting of a series of steel reeds arranged together horizontally in small channels. An awkward design, it offered only blow notes arranged chromatically.

Initial designs by Buschmann were widely imitated, leading to many modifications and advancements. A Bohemian instrument maker named Richter may have made the most important advancements in early harmonica design. In 1825, he developed a variation that consisted of ten holes and twenty reeds, with separate blow and draw reed plates mounted on either side of a cedar comb. Richter’s tuning, utilizing a diatonic scale, became the standard configuration of what Europeans referred to as the Mundharmonika or mouth organ. This is the basic configuration still used in most harmonicas today.

In 1827 Christian Messner, a clockmaker from Trossingen, Germany, starts building harmonicas with his cousin, Christian Weiss. Two years after in March 1829 the first mass production of harmonicas begins in Vienna, Austria. But in 1857, the history of the harmonica changed dramatically. After visiting the harmonica factory of Messner and Weiss, Matthias Hohner, a fellow clockmaker from Trossingen, starts to manufacture harmonicas in his kitchen with the help of his family and one or two workmen. During their first year they produced 700 harmonicas. In 1862 at the urging of relatives who had already immigrated to the United States, Matthias Hohner begins to export harmonicas to America with great success.

By the end of 1867 the M. Hohner Company produces 22,000 harmonicas. In 1878 new machinery developed by Julius Berthold enables metal reeds to be stamped out by machines, rather than by hand. Though the reeds are stamped out by machine, the M. Hohner Company still tunes most of its harmonicas by hand to this day. Ten years after in 1887 M. Hohner produces 1 million harmonicas annually. An American depression causes M. Hohner to cease exports to the U.S. and to start marketing to other countries, in 1893 thus expanding the range of influence of the harmonica.

In 1900 Matthias Hohner hands over control of his company to his five sons. And after two years in Dec. 11, 1902 Matthias Hohner dies. His son manged to make the M. Hohner Company produces 8 Million harmonicas a year by the end of 1911.

The beginning of the golden age of the harmonica starts in 1920. Recording allows Blues, Country, Jazz and Jug Band artists to be heard for the first time by a mass audience. Vernon Dalhart?s “Wreck Of The Old 97” becomes Country music’s first million-selling record. Deford Bailey stars in the Grand Old Opry and cuts the first Country records in Nashville. Blues artists are recorded, first in New York and by the end of the decade; hundreds from all over the country have been recorded. Harmonica bands spring up all over the country and become the rage in Vaudeville.

In 1970 harmonica experiences a decline in popularity as guitarists continue to dominate both Rock and Blues music, and country music shifts to an over-produced Nashville sound. Blues music suffers from one of its periodic declines in popularity. But the enormous success of The Blues Brothers Movie in 1980 helps to kick off another revival of interest in Blues harmonica, which continues till nowadays.