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Harmonica Positions vs. Modes - What is the Difference?


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The harmonica is a wonderful instrument known for its soulful sound and portability. Harmonicas are easy to play, but there are some concepts that you might find confusing. You may come across the terms "positions" and "modes" in your learning. These concepts are fundamental to understanding the harmonica's capabilities and exploring its full range of musical possibilities. In this video lesson and article, we will explore the difference between harmonica positions and modes, shedding light on their significance and how they affect your playing.

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What are Harmonica Positions?

Harmonica positions refer to the relationship between the key of the harmonica and the key of the song you are playing. Let me explain further to make this clearer.


Standard diatonic harmonicas consists of ten holes and each harmonica is tuned to a specific key. For example, a harmonica in the key of C has all the notes of the C major scale. Even though harmonicas are meant to be played in one specific key, we can play them in multiple keys depending on context and the style of music. That's where positions come in...


Positions are a way of talking about the relationship between the key of the harmonica and the key of the song.


Your choice of position will depend on the style of music you want to play and the effect you want to create. The most common position for blues music, for example, is 2nd position. Second position allows you to play a C harmonica in the key of G, emphasizing the draw notes and allowing you to bend notes to get a really rich, bluesy sound. The starting note (tonic) for 2nd position is 2 draw. This is a fifth up from the designated harp key.


Here are some scales tabbed out for 2nd position (all starting on the 2 draw note):

Major pentatonic scale:

-2 -3// -3 -4 5 6


Full major scale:

-2 -3// -3 4 -4 5 5* 6


Minor pentatonic scale:

-2 -3/ 4 -4 -5 6


The blues scale:

-2 -3/ 4 -4/ -4 -5 6



Note that you can play lots of different scales in 2nd position. This is true with all positions (although certain scales will definitely be easier in some positions).

Want to know more about 1st, 2nd and 3rd positions? Check out this great Positions Guide.


What are Harmonica Modes?

A mode is a specific type of scale. Modes are special because they are derived from the major scale. The twist is that each mode starts on a new degree of the major scale, giving it unique characteristics. The modes have Greek names. Here is each mode along with the scale degree from which it is built, and its character or feel:


Ionian (1st scale degree) - this is identical to the major scale. It is the most common mode used in Western music.


Dorian (2nd scale degree) - this mode has a serious and melancholic sound, but it is not quite as sad as the natural minor scale.


Phrygian (3rd scale degree) - this mode has a dark, eerie sound that is quite mystical and moody.


Lydian (4th scale degree) - this mode has a bright and cheerful sound similar to the major scale.


Mixolydian (5th scale degree) - this mode has a strong, bluesy sound.


Aeolian (6th scale degree) - this is the natural minor scale. It has a sad and sombre sound.


Locrian (7th scale degree) - this mode is the least common mode. It has a very dissonant and unsettling sound.


While the term "mode" is more commonly used in the context of music theory and scales, it has relevance to harmonica playing as well, and is sometimes confused with harmonica positions. We'll now explore the difference between harmonica positions and modes, and why they sometimes confuse harmonica players.


The Difference Between Positions and Modes

So, what is the difference between harmonica positions and modes? The main difference is that positions are a way of playing scales on the harmonica, while modes are a specific type of scale.


Modes and positions are not the same thing (though they are often confused). Playing in a certain position doesn't decide the scale that you play, it just tells you where your home base (tonic note) sits on the instrument. For example, we saw above that you can play lots of different scales all in 2nd position. This is true of all positions.


However, the layout of the diatonic harmonica means that each mode is easiest to play in one specific position (i.e. you can play the mode without bending) so it's common to hear them spoken about together. This is where a lot of the confusion comes from.


To reiterate, you can play a mode in any position if you have the required technical ability. But to start with, it’s easy to play each mode on your C harmonica as long as you know your major scale. Simply pick a different starting degree and you’re on your way:


Here are the easiest positions to use for each mode:


Ionian - 1st position

Dorian - 3rd position

Phrygian - 5th position

Lydian - 12th position

Mixolydian - 2nd position

Aeolian - 4th position

Locrian - 6th position


Why Do People Sometimes Confuse Harmonica Positions and Modes?

There are a few reasons why people get confused between harmonica positions and modes.

  • The names are often used interchangably. Sometimes you'll hear people say things like "2nd position is the same as Mixolydian mode" or "3rd position is just the Dorian mode". This can lead to confusion, especially for beginners. As we have seen, positions and modes are not identical. The position tells you where to start your scale, whereas a mode is a type of scale.

  • Positions and modes are closely related. Each mode fits well in one single position. This means it's most often played in that specific position. After all, it makes sense to find the easiest way to play a melody otherwise you're making things unnecessarily hard for yourself. However, remember that in theory each mode can be played in any position.

  • Lack of theoretical understanding. Understanding positions and modes requires a basic understanding of music theory. Since harmonica players come from diverse backgrounds, not all may have a solid foundation in music theory. This lack of knowledge can make it challenging to grasp the concepts and their relationship to harmonica playing.

Despite these challenges, it is important to understand the difference between harmonica positions and modes. By understanding these concepts, you can expand your musical vocabulary and create more expressive and creative playing.


Here are a few tips for avoiding confusion between harmonica positions and modes:

  • Learn the names of the notes on the harmonica. This will help you to identify the notes that you are playing, regardless of the position or mode.

  • Practice playing in different positions and modes. The more you practice, the more familiar you will become with the different sounds that each position and mode produces.

  • Use a reference chart. There are many reference charts available online and in music stores that can help you to visualize the different positions and modes.

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are still confused, there are many experienced harmonica players who are willing to offer guidance. I'm happy to help however I can!


Conclusion

Harmonica positions and modes are crucial concepts to grasp for any harmonica player looking to expand their musical horizons. While positions refer to the relationship between the key of the harmonica and the key of the song, allowing you to play outside the harmonica's natural key, modes refer to specific scales that can be played in any given position.


So, the next time you pick up your harmonica, remember to explore different positions and modes to unleash your creativity and create captivating melodies that will captivate your audience. Happy playing!


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