Playing an instrument is a really special skill to have, but many are large and unwieldy (looking at you, cello) or expensive and require special care (like the violin or saxophone). If you want to learn to play an instrument that’s small and portable as well as relatively easy, why not have a go at the harmonica? 

But what is the best way to learn the harmonica? Quite simply, to get started. Here, we’ll cover everything beginners need to know about how to play harmonica.

How to Play the Harmonica in 5 Steps

Harmonica music is written on a tablature (tab), which is a simplified form of written music. Harmonica tab shows you which hole number on the harmonica to place your mouth in front of, and whether to inhale or exhale. If you’re committed to learning the harmonica beyond beginner level, learning to read harmonica tab is a good idea and will enable you to play lots of different songs. It’s also much simpler than traditional written music. However, this isn’t essential at the beginner stage. You can practice by making up your own tunes until you’re comfortable with the way the instrument works.

Skillshare instructor Ben Hewlett believes it’s possible to learn to play the harmonica in one month and teaches a class on exactly that. Below are the steps you’ll need to follow.

Source: instagram
Harmonica tab for Happy Birthday (in French!). You don’t need to know how to read tablature to learn how to play the harmonica, though.

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Step 1: Choose a Harmonica

To learn how to play the harmonica, beginners must start by choosing an instrument.

Harmonicas come in different sizes, but Hewlett recommends a 10-hole diatonic in the key of C. If that doesn’t mean much to you, drop in to the nearest music store for a chat with a professional (or just ask for what you’re looking for!). 

Some harmonicas have a button on the side (these are called chromatic harmonicas), but in the interest of keeping things simple for beginners, you don’t need one of these right now. (If you want to learn how to play chromatic harmonicas, keep in mind that they’re harder than diatonic harmonicas). 

Harmonicas are also available at various price points, from very cheap to relatively expensive. Your budget will play a role in which harmonica you choose, but Hewlett recommends going with the best you can afford, or at least a middle-of-the-range instrument.

Step 2: Hold it Correctly

harmonica holding
Learn how to play the harmonica by holding your instrument correctly.

If you’re right handed, hold your harmonica in your left hand (and vice versa). Place the body of the harmonica between your thumb and index finger. Fold your other hand around the harmonica in a cupping manner. There are no hard and fast rules, though, so do whatever is comfortable for you.

Step 3: Hold the Harmonica in Your Mouth

playing the harmonica
Rest the harmonica on your bottom lip.

Placing the harmonica correctly in your mouth may take a bit of trial and error, but it mostly comes down to what is comfortable and allows you to make the right sounds. The harmonica should be between your lips and resting in front of your bottom teeth. You don’t need to pucker up your lips as you would to play a flute or trumpet. Your lips should be on the top and bottom of the instrument, but your jaw needs to be open, creating space inside your mouth.

Step 4: Breathe Correctly

playing the harmonica
Practice breathing in and out through your harmonica for 10 seconds each.

Once you’ve got the harmonica comfortably positioned, the next challenge is to figure out how to breathe properly. Hewlett says that breathing for the harmonica should be gentle, soft, and steady, and come from your diaphragm. Sound can be made through the harmonica when breathing out and in. Breathing exercises are a good idea to lengthen your breath, as they are for other wind instruments and singing. Practice breathing out through the harmonica for 10 seconds and then in again for 10 seconds.

Step 5: Experiment With Different Ways of Making Sound

playing harmonica
Your hand can be used to create a vibrato sound.

There are various ways of making sounds with your harmonica, and these utilize your hand, your breathing, your throat, your tongue, your lips and jaw, and the position of the harmonica within your mouth.

As the harmonica is a musical instrument, you need to hear and see it being played to best understand the different techniques for making music. Hewlett is a full-time harmonica teacher and musician and offers many Skillshare classes on the instrument, from beginner to more advanced. Watch and listen to him play to master the basics of playing the harmonica.

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Written by:

Elen Turner