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How Difficult is it to Learn the Harmonica?

Every year, towards the end of the summer term at my secondary school, we were ‘treated’ to a speech by the head of the board of governors. Despite the fact that he was addressing an audience composed primarily of teenagers who’d already sat through at least one of these speeches in the past, the governor’s subject matter was unwaveringly consistent. So consistent, in fact, that by year three most of the students with a decent memory could probably have recited the whole thing verbatim.

The message itself was a fairly simple one – success is predicated more on hard work than on some elusive inspiration or special talent. The fact that I can still recall this, many years on, is, I suppose, testament, in some small way, to the fundamental truth of this notion. Or perhaps it was just its repetition every year for seven years.

Practice Makes Perfect

When we learn an instrument, we’re often told a similar message – practise, practise, practise, then practise some more. But some instruments seem to offer more in terms of delivering a return on your time investment than others. Which brings us to the harmonica, and a couple of commonly asked questions on harp forums – exactly how difficult is it to play, and how much return does it give you on your time spent learning to play it.

It’s probably useful at this point to provide a bit of detail on my own musical background. I was classically trained from a fairly young age as a pianist, then came guitars, bass and a bit of fairly poor drumming. The harmonica is my fifth instrument, and, in terms of my playing ability, it currently sits below bass but above drums.

Transferable Skills

The first thing to say, perhaps, is that being competent in other instruments before taking up the harmonica definitely speeds up initial progress. Once I’d worked out a major scale in the first position, for example, I could play simple tunes straight away. In this respect, it’s relatively intuitive to anyone who’s played a keyboard or piano – much more so than other wind instruments, whose note layouts often appear to have been designed by a lunatic (I’m thinking of you, saxophone).

Compared to playing the guitar, where sounding a set of clear notes initially feels like the work of impossibly complicated contortions of the fingers, the harmonica appears to be quite straightforward. Then you find you need to produce a note outside of the major scale, and suddenly things aren’t quite so easy. Bending notes on the guitar is the work of a few hours’ practice; bending notes on the harmonica involves attempting a variety of oral gymnastics with seemingly little effect on the note’s pitch. Then repeating, ad infinitum, with no obvious improvement.

Like all skills, though, progression never maps as a nice smooth gradient of continual improvement; it’s more like the odd, sudden “eureka!” moment, followed by endless plateaus of ‘am I ever going to get any better?’. Persist, however, and usually you’ll make the leap – this was certainly the case with bending, where it took many, many fruitless hours before I achieved any variation in pitch.

Comparison With Other Instruments

In terms of difficulty, I would say that this isn’t quite comparable with the trickier initial aspects of being a pianist, such as coordinating left and right hands to perform completely different tasks. It’s more akin to the level required on the guitar to move seamlessly between chords, with no dead notes sounding and no delay. That is to say, tricky at first, but within reach without having to commit half of your life to practising the technique.

By this point you should be able to do a passable imitation of a harmonica player. Enough, at least, to fool the very untrained ear into thinking that you can actually play. Not enough, however, to sound good to anyone who’s a fan of the instrument.

The next stage is being able to play more complicated melodies at speed without hesitation or nasty squealing noises. This is analogous, in many ways, to learning guitar solos; in fact, given the strong connection of both instruments with the blues, the scales used tend to be very similar for many of the most popular pieces of music.

Of course, the differences between the average and the great are obvious not only in the complexity of a piece and the speed at which it can be played, but also in the tone produced. I have to say at this point that I haven’t quite mastered a perfect tone yet; just like when I became competent on guitar and could string together a few decent sounding licks at speed, it sounds relatively impressive at first, but a closer listen reveals little imperfections that are notable in a good player’s rendition by their absence.

Conclusion

So, in answer to the original question – in my view, the harmonica has a less extreme learning curve initially than instruments like the guitar or piano, and, ultimately, is not as hard to reach a reasonable level of competence with. Like all instruments, though, achieving true mastery will take a considerable amount of time and energy – perhaps even conforming to the old 10,000 hour rule of focused practice. With this in mind, I’ll report back in around a decade, hopefully with news of my virtuosic ability!

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