History of the Melodica

The modern melodica was invented in the 1950's by the music company Hohner, although other forms of the instrument have been around as early as the 19th century in Italy. Hohner breifly attempted to produce an electric melodica but production was stopped due to design problems and cost. Today several companies make melodicas, with Hohner still one of the largest producers.

A melodica is a free-reed instrument that is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece in the side of the instrument or through an air tube. A keyboard on top allows notes to be played by opening a hole for air to flow over a reed and create a note. Most melodicas have a keyboard that is 2 or 3 octaves long, although there are 1 octave range melodicas.

The majority of melodicas are made of plastic, although there are some made of wood or metal. The melodica's light weight and portablility is one of it's key attributes, making it the ideal instrument for both children and stage use. The melodica can be played standing while blowing through a mouthpiece or sitting with the melodica horizontal and the use of an air tube.

Melodicas are a great instrument to learn music on, and are used by students in many music schools for instruction. The melodica is a polyphonic instrument with the keyboard allowing the musician to easily play chords and accidentals that would be much harder or even impossible on a traditional woodwind instrument.

The melodica has a unique sound, with a tone resembling a combination of the harmonica and an accordion. The sound can be manipulated by how the player blows into the mouthpiece. Techniques such as using the tongue for short, staccato notes or using a light breath to create softer legato notes. In general, playing single notes will sound louder with more attack, while playing several notes together (chords) will sound softer with less attack. Other playing techniques include varing your breathing for a tremolo effect and pressing on the keys only halfway to achieve bent notes.

Melodicas began to be used as a serious instrument in the 1960's by composer Steve Reich and Jazz musician Phil Moore Jr. They are now used by musicians worldwide in many different genres of music.
Jamaican Dub and Reggae musician Augustus Pablo used the melodica extensively in the 1970's.
The band New Order used melodicas prominently in the 1980's.
The band Gorillaz have used them heavily on many of their songs.
Melodicas have become very popular in indie folk and indie rock music.

Types of Melodicas:

  • Soprano & Alto: Higher pitched, thinner sounding tone. Usually played with 2 hands on the keyboard.
  • Tenor: Lower pitched tone, usually played with 1 hand on the keyboard and the other hand holding the melodica. Can also be played with an air tube on a table and 2 hands on the keyboard.
  • Bass: Lowest pitched, least common melodica. These tend to be the largest and most expensive melodicas.
  • Accordina: Just like other melodicas except the keyboard is replaced with buttons.
  • Alternate names include: Melodion, Melodika, Melodia, Pianica, Melodihorn, Clavietta. Hooter(nickname)

Augustus Pablo playing the melodica

Selection of artists that have used the melodica:

Steve Reich
The Beach Boys
Phil Moore Jr.
Hermeto Pascoal
Augustus Pablo
Peter Tosh
Joy Division
New Order
Paul Duncan
Emmanuel Del Real
Jon Batiste
Gorillaz
Ben Folds
The Eels

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