The harmonica is a wind instrument which has existed for millennia and has undergone many modifications to evolve into the instrument that we know today.
The first form of the harmonica, known as the sheng, was invented in China in 3000 B.C. The Sheng was a free reed instrument with metal or bamboo reeds which used bamboo shoots to amplify the sound.
In the West, Friedrich L. Buschmann, in 1821 Germany, was searching for a simpler way to tune pianos, as the small devices currently in use, known as terpodians, were fragile and unreliable. But he took inspiration from this small instrument, modernized and improved it, and named it the Aura. The Aura was a chromatically tuned instrument composed of 21 metallic blades positioned on a wood cover.
The diatonic harmonica was first constructed in 1826 by Joseph Richter, a Bohemian instrument maker. He created an instrument with both blow and draw notes and named it Mund Harmonika, or mouth organ. At this time, the harmonica was not really considered a musical instrument, but more as piece of jewelry. Just as women might wear a diamond necklace around their neck, men often wore harmonicas as a type of hand bracelet.
Finally, in 1827 the German watchmaker Matthias Hohner was inspired by this musical jewel and decided to improve it. He made further refinements and founded the Hohner Company in 1857. The instruments began to be exported to the United States and became very popular as folk instruments.
Today, the harmonica has spread everywhere and has become the top selling instrument in the world. It is particularly valued for its’ portability and ease of playing. Harmonicas are available in many different keys and tunings which greatly expands their musical repertoire.
Thanks to continued modernization and the innovations of modern players, the harmonica has gone beyond its’ roots as primarily a folk instrument, (folk, blues, jazz) into an instrument that can be used to express virtually every style of music.
The younger generation is also beginning to rediscover the harmonica and is adapting it to current musical styles, reinvigorating this ancient instrument and bringing new delight to harmonica players everywhere.