Music Theory for Harmonica Players

Music Theory for Harmonica Players Part 5 – Harmonica Note Layout: Major Scales

In previous posts we’ve looked at the major scale and how it’s built out of notes in the chromatic scale. We’ve also seen that we can refer to notes within scales using numbers called scale degrees. Now lets look at how all this relates to our harmonicas.

Here’s the C Major scale again:

Note name:    C D E F G A B C
Scale degree: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8/1

And here’s a diagram showing the notes on a C harmonica:

Diagram showing the note names for each blow and draw reed on a C diatonic harmonica

So we can see that all the notes on the C harmonica come from the C scale and all are repeated at least twice. This is because the range of the harmonica covers three octaves.

Holes 1-4 comprise the lower octave, holes 4-7 comprise the middle octave and holes 7-10 comprise the upper octave.

Diagram showing how the three octaves available on the harmonica lay out across the holes

There is a complete C major scale available in the middle octave.

Middle octave major scale: 4+ 4 5+ 5 6+ 6 7 7+

Looking at the upper and lower octaves however we find that some of the notes of the scale are missing. However we can still access those notes if we use bends (the mechanics of bending is beyond the scope of this post, just understand it’s a technique harmonica players use to access notes not naturally available on the instrument).

Here’s the C harmonica again, this time also showing all the blow and draw bends available.

Diagram showing all of the notes available on a C harmonica - including bends

So using bends we can play complete major scales in both the upper and lower octaves too.

Lower octave major scale: 1+ 1 2+ 2’’ 2 3’’ 3 4+

(Note that you can substitute 3+ for 2 if you prefer, they are the same note.)

Upper octave major scale: 7+ 8 8+ 9 9+ 10 10+’ 10+

There are a couple of points to note about the upper octave.

  • One of the peculiarities of the harmonicas tuning is that in each of the holes 1-6 the blow note is lower pitched than the draw note. In holes 7-10 however the reverse is true and the draw note in each hole is lower in pitch than the blow note.
  • The 10 blow half step bend is a tricky note to play and it’s not common in blues either. If you haven’t developed the technique to play that bend don’t worry, you can just skip it.

Playing all three octaves together up and down the harmonica is a great exercise:

Major scale in all octaves:

Ascending: 1+ 1 2+ 2’’ 2 3’’ 3 4+ 4 5+ 5 6+ 6 7 7+ 8 8+ 9 9+ 10 (10+’) 10+
Descending: 10+ (10+’) 10 9+ 9 8+ 8 7+ 7 6 6+ 5 5+ 4 4+ 3 3’’ 2 2’’ 2+ 1 1+

To finish with, here’s a diagram showing the scale degrees in place of the note names:

Diagram showing the major scale degrees in place of note names on a C harmonica

And that’s how the major scale works on our harmonicas! Next time we’ll examine position playing and how to access other modes with different sounds.