Reading Music for Harmonica
The term musical notation refers to any written system of communicating how to play music. There are hundreds of different types of musical notation, with major differences between the way music is communicated in different regions of the world and sometimes even between different regions of the same country.
The most widely used and accepted form of musical notation, used the world over, is standard notation, where all notes and chords are written on a staff of five vertical lines, and all the information you need to play the music — including what key the music is in, what the time signature is, what speed to play it, how loudly or softly to play it, and exactly how long to play each note — is precisely specified. Standard notation can be written for any instrument, and can be played on any instrument so long as the player reads it.
While standard notation is exacting and has strict rules, musical notation itself has no rules except that it has the ability to communicate to the musician what he is supposed to play. Many composers have invented their own forms of musical notation, some of which include color and shape to graphically express musical instructions and look more like modern art than music!
Over time musicians have modified standard notation into more convenient forms, including:
The lead sheet, which most people know as “sheet music,” which is comprised of the melody line written in notes on the staff, with chord symbols above the staff and the lyrics to the song written below the staff. A chord symbol is a way of writing a chord in letter form, rather than as a stack of notes on the staff, such as “Gm7” for a G minor seventh chord.
The chart, which includes the melody written out on the staff and chord symbols written above the staff, but no lyrics.
The chord chart, which has only the chord changes of the progression, written as chord symbols, with no melody shown.
Musical notes themselves can be expressed in letter form, such as G or B , or they can be expressed as note symbols on a staff in standard notation, or they can be expressed in tablature.
Tablature is a complete departure from standard notation. Instead of communicating what note to play, tablature tells you where on your instrument to put your fingers — or in the case of the harmonica, your lips. Because tablature is based on a representation of the physical instrument itself, it is specific to one instrument, so harmonica tablature is completely different from guitar tablature or bagpipe tablature.
Besides telling which holes on the harp to use, harmonica tablature, or tab for short, tells you whether you should blow or draw that hole, and also whether you should bend the note or not.
The Pipeolion harmonica was designed in 1907 by manufacturer Christian Weiss. The instrument had ten brass horns protruding from the back with two reeds inside each horn. It remained in production for only five years, and it's one of the most sought after collectors' items on the market today.
You'll find that there are many different styles of harmonica tab being used by various people, and some styles look almost completely different from others. For example, some styles of harmonica tab use directional arrows to indicate blow or draw, while others use a plus sign (+) to indicate blow and a minus sign (-) for draw. Still others use a circle around the hole number to indicate draw. It's a curiosity that so many different styles of harmonica tab have been allowed to coexist because most other instruments have one dominant form of tab, and which is best is purely a matter of preference among players.
Even though the styles of harp tab can look dramatically different from each other, they are all giving you the same three pieces of information — which hole to play, whether to blow or draw, and whether to bend the note (and, if so, how much). And all diatonic harmonica tab has the hole numbers 1 through 10 in common. Knowing these things, you should be able to figure out any unfamiliar style of harmonica tab pretty quickly.
Tablature has advantages over standard notation, but it also has some big disadvantages. The main advantage of tab is that it tells you exactly where to play the indicated note on your instrument, whereas in standard notation there are no such directions. And because tab is based on a physical representation of your instrument you get more of a direct connection to the instructions than you would using the more abstract standard notation.
The biggest disadvantage of tablature is that it doesn't give you any indication of how long to hold each of the notes you're playing, so if you don't already know how the song you're trying to play goes, you'll get lost quickly. Another disadvantage is that you don't get the visual sense of the flow and direction of the notes, such as whether the notes are ascending or descending, that you do from standard notation. Furthermore, because tab is instrument-specific you can't use it to communicate with any musicians who don't play your instrument.
The harmonica has played a significant role in many films, both on camera and as a solo instrument on soundtracks. These include Pot O' Gold, which starred James Stewart as a harmonica player; Shane, which show-cased a harmonica player performing a requiem at a funeral; and Always in My Heart, which prominently featured the popular Borrah Minevitch Harmonica Rascals.
But never mind the disadvantages for now. Harmonica tab is a great tool that's easy to learn and provides clear direction about how to move around the instrument, exactly where the blow and draw notes are, and where the primary bend notes are. The more time you spend learning songs from tab, the deeper your knowledge of the harmonica will become.
For the purposes of this book it was decided that arrows provide the best visual indication of blow and draw, and graphic bend symbols have been used for the same reason.