Harmonica Positions

8 minute read

Now we can get into the real beef of harmonica music theory: harmonica positions are the most obscure part of harmonica music theory because they embody a concept that is rarely discussed.

What are Positions?

Harmonica positions are basically how harmonica players can play different scales on a single harmonica. To explain: when playing a C harmonica, the tuning is designed to allow as much versatility as possible, including many different scales and chords.

C Harmonica

The lowest note (1 blow) is a C and the highest note (10 blow) is also a C. According to the original Richter tuning such a harmonica would be described as being tuned in C major. As a result the C major scale is very easy to play practically all the way along from holes 1 to 10; we can describe the note of C as being the natural tonic (i.e. degree I).

So what if we wanted to play a tune in some other key (for example in G)? Well, we would have to make sure we started and finished all the scales we played on the note of G (2 draw, 3 blow, 6 blow, and 9 blow) and also play some G chords. The note of G would become the new focal centre of our music: the new tonic. In order to play the G major scale on a C harmonica we would have to use a completely different set of holes compared to the holes we would use to play the C major scale. That is to say, we would have to change positions.

So, a position (in harmonica theory) is essentially just a particular way of playing music in a different key relative to the key of the harmonica you are using. Playing music in the key of C on a C harmonica is called 1st Position (also called Straight Harp). To play music in the key of G on a C harmonica is called 2nd Position (also called Cross Harp).

Why are Positions so important?

To explain why harmonica position are so important, it is necessary to illustrate a fundamental difference between playing a harmonica and playing an instrument like a keyboard: when playing a keyboard we always use different keys to play different scales; however, when you press a key on a keyboard you already know what sound is going to be produced because each key is only ever tuned to play one (and only one) particular note.

Keyboard

To a certain extent, this is also true with harmonicas: if you blow on hole 4 on a C harmonica you know you are going to play a C; if you draw on hole 2 on a C harmonica you know you are going to play a G, etc. However, this all changes once you decide to not use a C harmonica; what if you are using an F harmonica?

F Harmonica

Clearly, all the notes on an F harmonica are completely different. If you look carefully, you will notice that in order to play any C scales you would have to play in 2nd Position (or Cross Harp); this is because the holes that all played G on the C harmonica (2 draw, 3 blow, 6 blow, and 9 blow) now all play C on the F harmonica.

This is the fundamental difference with respect to playing music on a harmonica: in order to play music in a particular key on a harmonica, you would need to play in a different position depending on the key of the harmonica itself; and since there are 12 different keys (A, Bb, B, C, Db, etc.) there are (in theory) 12 different positions on a single harmonica. If all harmonicas were tuned like a C harmonica then there would be no distinction between a scale and a position; but there are, in fact, 12 different tunings (one for each key), which means that the only thing that remains constant between the different tunings is the series of holes you use to play a particular position.

For example, to play 1st Position (Straight Harp) on an F harmonica you would use exactly the same holes as you would use to play 1st Position on a C harmonica. However, you would produce two different scales (F and C respectively). In order to play 2nd Position (Cross Harp) on an F harmonica you would use exactly the same holes as you would use to play 2nd Position on a C harmonica. However (again), you would produce two different scales (C and G respectively).

Do we only need one harmonica?

Since it is theoretically possible to play in any key on any given harmonica, the first natural assumption is that you only need one harmonica in order to play any piece of music; however, this is not the case.

There are many reasons why you would want to use a harmonica tuned to a particular key for a given piece of music; however, there are two main reasons that justify the need on their own:

  1. A diatonic harmonica covers 3 octaves (37 notes between 1 blow to 10 blow); however, there are only 10 holes on a diatonic harmonica, which offers a total of just 20 different notes (and two of those are identical: 2 draw and 3 blow). So, overall there are only 19 different notes built into a harmonica, which is just over half the available total. As a result, it is necessary to bend notes in order to achieve variation (see the Resources section for an excellent instructional reference by David Harp). This does not change the fact the number of scales and chords available on a harmonica are extremely limited compared to an instrument such as a keyboard. Unless you can blow and draw on different holes at the same time, in which case there are fortunes for you to be made elsewhere (I assure you).
  2. Certain styles of music sound better in particular positions because specific sets of notes are more readily available. For example: folk and classical music sound better in 1st Position (as Herr Richter designed it); Blues, Rock, and Country all sound best in 2nd Position; 3rd and 4th Position both produce minor music; 5th Position has a very Spanish feel to it, and is very popular in Andalusian music (as mentioned in Advanced Scales).

In fact, 90% of all Blues music is played in 2nd Position because all the necessary scales and chords are perfectly positioned (as mentioned in Twelve-Bar Blues). Similarly, 4th Position has its tonic on the relative minor of the key of the harmonica: so on a C harmonica you would be playing music in the key of A; and because a relative minor contains the same notes as its relative major, any music played in the key of A on a C harmonica will sound minor.

How do we work out Positions?

You are unlikely to ever use more than the first five positions; in fact, most harmonica players rarely use anything other than 1st, 2nd and 4th Positions. That said, it is still nice to understand how everything comes together. In a later section, showing various harmonica scales, only the first five positions are covered; however, these are substantial and include the major, minor, Blues and pentatonic scales. The latter being very popular in Country music.

In order to calculate the key of a particular position, you merely count up a perfect 5th (7 semitones) from the tonic of the previous position. For example, 1st Position on a C harmonica is in the key of C, so in order to work out the key of the 2nd Position we just count up 7 semitones from C: this takes us up to G. Likewise, to calculate the key of 3rd Position on a C harmonica we just count up another 7 semitones from G: this takes us up to D.

Keyboard

You can also apply this logic in reverse, which is probably what you are more likely to do in practice. For example, if you want to play 2nd Position Blues in the key of A then you just count down 7 semitones from A: this takes you down to D. So, in order to play 2nd Position in the key of A, you would need to use a D harmonica.

Below is a reference table that lists all the keys of all the positions for all the standard harmonica Richter tunings. As mentioned above, you will probably never need any position beyond the first five, so those should be your main focus. If you want to make your life easier when performing, then the best thing to do would be to try and remember the keys translations for 2nd and 4th Positions. Though sooner or later, with regular practice, these should become second nature to you.

And finally…

So, there you have it. You now know more about harmonica music theory than around 95% of all amateur (and a fair few professional) harmonica players. Give yourself a big round of applause or a pat on the back (which ever is easier), because you have come a long way very quickly. Well done!

Positions for harmonicas in all keys

  Positions                      
  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th
Key of Harp Straight Harp

Major

Ionian Mode
Cross Harp

Blues

Mixylodian Mode
Draw Harp

Minor

Dorian Mode
Natural Minor

Aeolian Mode

Minor
Phrygian Mode              
C C G D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F
C#/Db C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D A E B F#/Gb
D D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G
D#/Eb D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab
E E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D A
F F C G D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb
F#/Gb F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D A E B
G G D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C
G#/Ab G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db
A A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D
A#/Bb A#/Bb F C G D A E B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb
B B F#/Gb C#/Db G#/Ab D#/Eb A#/Bb F C G D A