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Q: How can I tune my harmonica?

A: Harmonicas can be tuned. Filing them at the end that is riveted to the reed plate lowers the pitch. Filing them on the free end raises it. Be very careful if you do this. Don't file too much, support the reed while filing and use an electronic tuner. It is quite possible that the pitch will drop a bit when you first start playing a re-tuned harp - BB

In modern Western music there is an intrinsic difficulty if not impossibility, in reconciling a tuning to both harmony and melody. Simply put, the closer the notes are to the normal tuning found on keyboards and quartz tuners, known as Equal Temperament, the rougher the chords will sound; likewise, the more pure the chords, the stranger the melody will appear to our ears. Chromatic harmonicas are usually tuned to Equal Temperament, which compromises harmonious chords in order to perform equally well in every key. Diatonic models are not required to perform in all keys so one has the opportunity to better harmonize the chords.

Marine Band style harps were originally tuned to Just Intonation, where the Major chords were absolutely pure. This worked well for the instrument when played as it usually was- solo or in concert only with other harmonicas. The Tonic, or blow chords, and the Dominant and Dominant 7th chords (1-4 draw and 1-5 draw respectively) sounded wonderful, and the ear would quickly adjust to the difference in melody as it was based on pure intervals anyway. Complaints arose when these models were called upon more and more to play and be in tune with other types of instruments, so gradually the tuning drifted closer to Equal Temperament. Finally, a point was reached when the Marine Band was so close to Equal Temperament that complaints started coming in that the chords sounded out of tune and that it was even beginning to affect the playing style of blues players. The note of the fifth hole draw has by far the greatest variance between Equal and Just tuning, and it was noticed that blues players were less inclined to play long, soulful notes on that hole than in earlier times, when the instrument was closer to Just Intonation. The arrival of the MS series offered the opportunity of a solution to the problem.

The Marine Band and Special 20 are the models favored by the more traditional players, blues or otherwise, who are likely to prefer a tuning closer to Just Intonation, especially on the 5 draw note. These two models, therefore, have recently been brought back closer to the original tuning, while still maintaining a certain compromise allowing them to fit in with other instruments. The MS models are tuned as the Marine Band was up to recently, a little closer to Equal Temperament in general, but with the distinction that the 5 and 9 draw are tuned well up, where they will sound right with other instruments, especially in the Sub-dominant chord in 1st position (5-6 draw).

The following charts are given showing the relative pitch of each note in the standard Marine Band, or Richter, tuning. The tunings are expressed in cents, the unit used with most quartz or strobe tuners, and show the variance from Equal Temperament. This variance is the same regardless of which key the instrument is tuned to or how close to A-440 it is pitched.

Original Marine Band Tuning (Just Intonation)

Hole #   1   2   3  4   5  6   7   8   9 10
Blow     0 -14  +2  0 -14 +2   0 -14  +2  0
Draw    +4  +2 -12 +4 -27 +6 -12  +4 -27 +6

Current Marine Band Tuning

Hole # 1   2   3  4   5  6   7    8  9 10
Blow   0 -12  +1  0 -12 +1   0 -12  +1  0
Draw  +2  +1 -11 +2 -12 +3 -11  +2 -12 +3

Tuning for MS Models

Hole #  1   2  3  4   5  6  7   8  9 10
Blow    0 -10 +1  0 -10 +1  0 -10 +1  0
Draw   +2  +1 -9 +2  +3 +3 -9  +2 +3 +3

The numbers represent deviation in cents from established pitch, such as A-440 or A-442, a cent being equal to 1/100th of a semi-tone.

The Golden Melody Model 542 is tuned to Equal Temperament. Hohner diatonics are tuned to A-442 at moderate volume so that they should not drop below A-440 at full volume. All tunings represent compromises, so players into tuning their harps may wish to experiment in finding one to suit their own needs best. I use an English concertina to accompany some of my playing and have developed a tuning for this combination based on Meantone Temperament, another system which utilizes pure Major thirds. I play more in the sharp keys, so I centered this tuning at D. By placing the thirds halfway between Equal and pure, the concertina is in good tune with other instruments, at least in the common keys, and produces pleasing chords. Note that the English concertina has buttons for 14 different notes in an octave:

   Ab   Eb   Bb    F    C    G D
+11.5 +9.6 +7.6 +5.7 +3.8 +1.9 0
   A    E    B   F#   C#    G#    D#
  -2 -3.9 -5.8 -7.7 -9.6 -11.6 -13.5

This article is becoming long-winded so I'll leave the topic of tools and techniques of tuning for later. Let me just say in response to a question regarding a note that went flat and would not stay up in pitch after being re-tuned, that when a reed goes drastically flat, a quarter-tone or more, it has likely developed an internal crack and will not stand up to playing. The harmonica should at this point be repaired or replaced.

Regards, Rick Epping (Hohner)

(FMI: "HELP! - crash course in reed tuning needed!" 23 Sep 94 HM, RB) (FMI: "Re: Chromatic Tuners" 31 Oct 94 FJM0 (FMI: Tuned bodies, just intonation" 18 Oct 94 WY) (FMI: "Re-calibrate A=440 (long -- was Re: Tuning questions..)" 29 Mar 95 HA)


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