How to play single notes on harmonica (for beginners)

In today's harmonica lesson, I'll teach you how to play clean, clear single notes on the harmonica.

What are single notes?


When you first blow through a harmonica, you will probably get more than one note playing at once. It’s important to have the ability to play these notes separately. In order to tell what a single note sounds like, pick a hole and block the holes on either side with your fingers. Blow the hole between your fingers and you should get a single note.


Lip purse, tongue block or U-block?


There are three main techniques used for obtaining single notes on the harmonica: tongue-blocking, U-blocking and lip-pursing (also sometimes called puckering). Most people find lip-pursing easier so that’s what we’ll look at here. (I also have a free lesson on tongue blocking and a free lesson on U-blocking)


We’ll use a very basic technique in order to get you playing a single note quickly. Pick a note on the harmonica, say hole four blow (4). Don’t worry too much about doing it right, just blow and draw, listening to how it sounds. Next try to narrow your lips to the shape you make when you whistle. Don’t make a noise with your lips as you would with a whistle. You are simply trying to shape your lips into a position which leaves only a small round hole: the space for a single note to play.


The sound should be clean and clear, and only one note. If it still sounds like more than one note, your mouth is likely to be too wide. Try making the hole between your lips narrower. Stand in front of a mirror to really see what you’re doing.


Getting a good tone


To improve your tone, think of putting the harmonica IN not ON your lips. The lips create a seal around the harmonica: if you try to play a single note out at the end of “little old lady look” lips, you will struggle to get a strong single note. For a complete beginner, that’s fine, but to get a big tone, the harmonica should be inside the lips. If your lips are too ‘flat’ then you’ll struggle to get a good seal on the harmonica, and you’ll have to work harder to make the instrument do its job, which is tiring and will also really affect your sound. Ever get breathy or strained sounds? This is likely why.


The jaw should also be lowered, as if you have a hot potato in your mouth. The tongue is slightly raised at the back, but the front is dropped to expand the oral cavity. All this can be extremely counter-intuitive, especially if you’ve been using a more restricted embouchure (mouth shape) for a while. It may even feel like a step backwards at first, as you re-learn to play single notes with better technique. But practise, practise, practise, and you will get it in time. The aim is for this technique to become second nature when you pick up the harmonica, so that you’ll be playing big powerful notes every time.




Practise exercises


Once you can produce a single note on one hole, it’s important to practice this same technique on every hole, blowing and drawing. A good exercise is to try the major scale, as follows (4 means blow on hole four, -4 means draw/breathe in on hole four, and so on):


4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7


Try playing this scale from left to right and then back. Listen to yourself, and ideally record your progress. When moving from hole to hole, the same shape must be maintained to get clean single notes.


Thanks for taking this lesson with me today. I hope you enjoyed it!


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