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harmonica. 1 The simplest of the musical instruments employing free reeds, known also as the mouth organ or French harp. It was probably invented in 1829 by Friedrich Buschmann of Berlin, who called his instrument the Mundäoline. The major production of the instrument has been in Germany since the early 19th cent. The reeds are set in a small, narrow case of wood or metal. For each reed there is a hole, through which the player draws or blows air with the mouth. Commonly the instrument is diatonic, having a compass of about two octaves, but the comparatively few virtuoso harmonica players use larger instruments having the full chromatic scale. The low cost and very small size of the harmonica adapt it well to class instruction among school children, and it is a common instrument in folk, rock, blues, and other forms of popular music. 2 Musical glasses, introduced in Dublin in 1743 by Richard Pockrich, played upon in London by Gluck in 1746, and improved by Benjamin Franklin c.1761; also called the glass harmonica. Franklin's instrument, which he called an armonica, consisted of a series of glass bowls, graduated in size and fitting one inside another. They were supported by a horizontal spindle passing through all of the bowls. As the spindle was made to revolve by means of a lever, the edges of the bowls passed through a trough filled with water. Contact of the player's fingertip with the moistened revolving edges of the bowls produced a penetrating, ethereal sound. A later form of the instrument had a keyboard. Both Mozart and Beethoven, as well as a few lesser composers wrote works for it. The instrument and the music for it has enjoyed a minor renaissance since the 1980s. 3 Strips of metal or glass, played upon with hammers or, later, having a keyboard, as described by Berlioz in his treatise on instrumentation. Related to this obsolete form are the celesta and glockenspiel.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a musical instrument composed of freely moving metal reeds that are set vibrating by air sucked or blown through the mouth. It was invented in 1821 by F. Buschmann in Berlin,

Harmonica types are subdivided into those based on the diatonic and chromatic scales, including solo and orchestral types (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) and those made up of chords and bass chords; there are also harmonicas with distinct national features. The most widespread types of harmonicas are those based on the Richter and Knittlingen systems. The Richter harmonica is based on the diatonic scale and is most commonly constructed in the keys of C major, G major, F major, and A minor. It produces a different timbre depending on whether air is inhaled or exhaled through the mouth. On the Richter harmonica, it is possible to play only 20 pitches, encompassing three incomplete octaves. The harmonica based on the Knittlingen system is similar to the Richter except that each note is produced in octaves of two or three.

Another type, the Viennese harmonica, differs in its greater range, tremolo effect, and overall sense of an “overflow” of sound. A number of keyboard harmonicas also exist: a flute-harmonica, similar to a clarinet in appearance; an ac-corden, an instrument with prepared chords for accompaniment; a melodica with a keyboard like a piano’s; and a har-monetta, also used for chord accompaniment.

The harmonica is used in many countries in school, student, and military ensembles and for solo performances.


Mirek, A. Spravochnik po garmonikam. Moscow, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a small wind instrument of the reed organ family in which reeds of graduated lengths set into a metal plate enclosed in a narrow oblong box are made to vibrate by blowing and sucking
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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