Music Theory for Harmonica Players

Music Theory for Harmonica Players Part 6 – Position Playing

So far we’ve been looking at playing the major scale. We’ve been playing in the key of C on a C harmonica – exactly what a C harmonica was designed to do.

(A quick aside. When discussing theory on this site or in my private lessons we always talk theory as if we’re playing a C harmonica, regardless of the actual harmonica in our hand. Here’s why.)

Position playing refers to playing the harmonica in a key different to the one it was designed to play in. We do this to achieve different tonal palettes and to more readily play in scales other than major. Lets look at how this works.

First Position (Major, or Ionian mode)

First position is easy, that’s playing the major scale in the key of the harmonica you’re playing. C on a C harmonica, for example, like we’ve been doing already.

We’ve seen how we can play the major scale using the natural notes of the harmonica. We call this the major mode, or to use it’s fancy Greek name, the Ionian mode.

For the sake of completeness, here’s the major scale again:

C major note names:    C D E F G A B C
C major scale degrees: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8/1

We can access three complete major scales on our harmonicas:

Lower octave major scale: 1+ 1 2+ 2’’ 2 3’’ 3 4+
Middle octave major scale: 4+ 4 5+ 5 6+ 6 7 7+
Upper octave major scale: 7+ 8 8+ 9 9+ 10 10+’ 10+

Second Position (Mixolydian mode)

Second position is based on the 5th scale degree of the first position key. In this case our first position is C so lets look at the C scale.

C major note names:    C D E F G A B C
C major scale degrees: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8/1

The fifth scale degree is G, so that’s our 2nd position key. To put it another way, when we play in the key of G on a C harmonica we’re playing in second position. Here’s the G major scale (if you need a refresher on how we build major scales check part 3 of this series).

G major note names:    G A B C D E F# G
G major scale degrees: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7  8/1

And here’s the notes on our C harmonica again for reference (but you’re well on your way to memorising this already, right?)

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

The C harmonica has all the notes of the G scale available except the F#. There is an F available though. If we use that instead we get a new scale, or mode. The fancy greek name for this one is the Mixolydian mode. An easy way to think about this is that the Mixolydian mode is just the major mode with a flat 7th. That flat 7th is a very bluesy sounding note.

Here’s the notes of the G Mixolydian mode:

G Mixolydian note names:    G A B C D E F  G
G Mixolydian scale degrees: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8/1

You’ll notice that this scale contains all the same notes of the C scale (i.e. no sharp or flat notes) it just starts from a different position.

We can play 2 complete Mixolydian scales on our harmonica:

Lower and middle octave: 2 3’’ 3 4+ 4 5+ 5 6+
Upper octave: 6+ 6 7 7+ 8 8+ 9 9+

Second position playing is ubiquitous. You’re probably playing it already. The overwhelming majority of blues harmonica is played in second position, as well as country, pop, you name it. We’ll look at why second position is so useful in another post. Meanwhile, let’s examine third position.

Third Position (Dorian mode)

Third position is based on the 5th scale degree of the 2nd position key. Our 2nd position was G. Here’s the G Mixolydian scale:

G Mixolydian note names:    G A B C D E F  G
G Mixolydian scale degrees: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8/1

The 5th scale degree of the G mixolydian scale is D so that’s our third position key. To put it another way, when we play in the key of D on a C harmonica we’re playing in third position. Here’s the D major scale:

D major note names:    D E F# G A B C# D
D major scale degrees: 1 2 3  4 5 6 7  8/1

And that C harmonica you’re memorising:

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

If we again flat the 7th (C instead of C#) and this time the third also (F instead of F#) we make what is known as the Dorian mode. Here’s the notes of the D Dorian mode:

D Dorian note names:    D E F  G A B C  D
D Dorian scale degrees: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8/1

Again, this scale contains the same notes and C major and G Mixolydian, just starting from the D instead of C or G.

We have two complete Dorian scales available.

Lower octave: 1 2+ 2’’ 2 3’’ 3 4+ 4
Middle and upper octave: 4 5+ 5 6+ 6 7 7+ 8

So the dorian mode is just the major mode with a flat 3rd and a flat 7th. Both these flat notes are very bluesy sounding.

Due to these two flatted notes The Dorian mode sounds considerably darker than either Major or Mixolydian. Because of this darker sound third position is often a good choice for playing over minor blues, however it can sound great played in many major tunes as well.

Fourth Position (Minor or Aeolian mode)

Fourth position is based on the 5th scale degree of the 3rd position key. Our Third position key was D. Here’s the D Dorian scale:

D Dorian note names:    D E F  G A B C  D
D Dorian scale degrees: 1 2 3b 4 5 6 7b 8/1

The fifth scale degree of the D Dorian scale is A, so A is our fourth position key. To put it another way, when we play in the key of A on a C harmonica we are playing in Fourth position. Here’s the A major scale:

A major note names:    A B C# D E F# G# A
A major scale degrees: 1 2 3  4 5 6  7  8/1

And again because I really can’t emphasise enough you should be memorising this, the notes on the C harmonica:

Diagram showing all of the notes available on a C harmonica - including bends
This time to get a usable scale we need to flatten the third, 6th and 7th, giving us the minor, or Aeolian mode.

A minor note names:    A B C  D E F  G  A
A minor scale degrees: 1 2 3b 4 5 6b 7b 8/1

Referencing the harmonica note diagram you can find two complete minor scales.

Lower and middle octave: 3’’ 3 4+ 4 5+ 5 6+ 6
Upper octave: 6 7 7+ 8 8+ 9 9+ 10

The flat 3rd and 7th are bluesy sounding notes, while the flat 6th has a very dark, minor quality. It’s not particularly common in a blues context to use the minor scale but it’s useful to know.

Other positions

You can keep on going up in 5ths to make a total of 12 positions – one for each note in the chromatic scale – but the first three are the most common by far, and certainly the ones you’ll want to study first. Many of the positions are very impractical to play and require bends or overblows to achieve the root note.

However twelfth position (playing in the key of F on a C harp, creating what’s called the Lydian mode) is used more frequently by some modern blues players as it’s only one note different to the major scale and readily playable.

Position playing can be very challenging to get your head around at first but it’s at the core of diatonic harmonica playing. Give yourself time for these ideas to sink in. Next time, now that we’re done with this giant info dump, we’ll see how all this works with a practical playing example.

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