The Melodica belongs to the free reed family of musical instruments. Instruments that use free reeds to produce sound do so by using air to vibrate a metal or synthetic reed mounted within a frame and tuned to a specific pitch. When playing a harmonica, the player blows air straight across the reeds. An accordion, on the other hand, uses a set of bellows to create the airflow. The Melodica is slightly different. The instrument has series of keys laid out in the style of a piano keyboard. When the player presses a key while blowing into the mouthpiece, a hole opens allowing the air to flow across the appropriate reed.
Free reed instruments have existed for millennia. Earliest examples are likely to have been invented in South East Asia as far back as the Stone Age. The Melodica as we know it today was invented in the 1950s by Hohner, though a precursor to the modern instrument can be traced back to 19th century Italy.
The nature of the melodica’s piano style keyboard makes it easy to use for anyone already familiar with the piano, unlike other woodwinds which require the player to learn special finger combinations. In addition, to this, the melodica is polyphonic (capable of playing several notes at once) whereas other single or double reed instruments like the clarinet and oboe respectively, are monophonic (only able to play one note at a time). The player can also control the dynamics of the instrument by blowing harder or softer into the mouthpiece.
Many Melodicas have a long flexible mouth pipe, allowing the instrument to be played standing, while using only one hand to operate the keys, or sat down, using both hands like a keyboard.
The Melodica is great for home and studio use. Its portable design also makes it ideal for taking with you on holiday, on tour, or just about anywhere you want to play music. For larger venues and recording, the Melodica can be amplified using a vocal mic. Some designs also feature a built in pickup, though these are fairly rare. Melodicas have become popular ‘one-song-per-set’ instruments in pop music as well, lending variety and an unusual timbre to the occasional melodic line or solo.
- Melodicas are popular education, especially in Asia, due to their lightweight design and colourful appearance.
- Minimalist composer Steve Reich made use of the instrument in his 1966 piece Melodica. The composition comprises of a four-note motif which is set slowly out of phase by use of a tape loop.
- Since Reggae musician Augustus Pablo adopted the Melodica in the 1970s, it has become popular in Jamaican Dub and Reggae bands.
- Paul Oscher of Muddy Waters is known for using one in live shows. He first recorded the instrument on the band’s 1971 album Live at Mr. Kelly’s.
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