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    Alan Brinton

    Kevin suggested in his interesting post under “A new piano and melodica video” that maybe a new thread should be started on this topic. Good idea, I think, so I’m reproducing his post here.

    Kevin wrote:

    “I find it interesting those of you who think the melodica is inexpressive? I find it quite expressive. I think it might have to do with the perspective of our expectations.
    The melodica is certainly limited in what sort of effects can be achieved compared to a harmonica but if you are coming from an organ background as I do, the ability to have breath control over volume of each note, tongue articulation of attack and note bending is a huge advantage over an organ where the pitch is fixed, any sort of volume swell is controlled imprecisely and rather mechanically by a foot pedal and articulation is really unknown.
    Even the much acclaimed Hammond organ is rather flat and lifeless if the Leslie is shut off or you play it through it’s original speaker system.

    “I’ve been lucky enough to have some brass instrument experience and really think the melodica is as expressive as any of the valve brass instruments perhaps more so since you can play chords and intervals.

    I think where we do suffer is the large amount of players who simply blow into the melodica as if filling a balloon with no articulation or change in pressure.
    If a player has a piano background and no real wind instrument experience they are used to controlling expression by finger pressure and speed which has no effect on the melodica. They see the keyboard and feel at home. So they blow harshly in one end and bang away at the plastic keys producing a rather unmusical and inexpressive performance. This coupled with the plastic construction and association with early music education causes the melodica to have an association with buffoonery in many people minds.

    “The melodica has not become mainstream because it is not sufficiently expressive. It is, as Stuart says, “limited to the sound of free reeds” but without the expressiveness of the harp. Professional musicians have better choices.

    I’m going to challenge you on that one statement.
    I think the failure to become mainstream has more to do with the fact that there was never or hasn’t yet been a bona-fide dedicated melodica playing star. The closest we have had is Augustus Pablo but he never quite broke into the mainstream.
    Until there is a good-looking player making the talk-shows and festivals I don’t think it will matter how wonderful an instrument we come up with or how virtuosic a player. Till somebody makes playing the melodica sexy, I think we are going to always be a keyboardists or accordionists side instrument.”

    Alan Brinton

    I nominate Jon Batiste. But there may be one or more potential candidates on this site.

    I don’t know how to define expressiveness in music, though I guess I know it when I hear it, and I know there are pianists (for example) who lack it even though they have excellent technique.


    It seems a little strange to me that an instrument itself can be “expressive”, and so I’ll give it a try and re-define „expressiveness“ so that we can have kind of an objective look at the thing:

    First we have the side of the instrument meaning all the possibilities it provides (for example bendings, overblowing, chord playing, WahWah’s).
    Second is the side of the player, meaning his technical skills as a wind player (flutter tongue, vibrato, circular breathing, double/triple tonguing etc.) and as a keyboard player (chords, scales, all that stuff).

    What we call “expressivity” is merely the result of the ability of a player to use both his skills and the possibilities of an instrument to create music.

    Now if we want to compare the possibilities of two instruments objectively we could simply use a chart like this:


    Bendings up Saxophone: yes Melodica: yes
    Bendings down Saxophone: yes Melodica: no
    Unlimited bendings Saxophone: yes Melodica: no
    Chords Saxophone: no Melodica: yes
    Intervals Saxophone: no Melodica: yes
    Growls Saxophone: yes Melodica: difficult

    What would be the result such a comparison? I guess it would be that all in all you have nearly as many possibilities to play a melodica in an “expressive” way as any other wind instrument. There are things you CANNOT do with a melodica and there are things ONLY a melodica can do.

    Nevertheless if we talk about “dream melodicas” we should try to widen the range of possibilities and ease possibilities we already have.

    And we as players have to widen our skills (and if I have done this I will make myself sexy and be a guest in talkshows and play festivals)


    Good ruminations Quetscher. Important topic and worth its own thread.

    I have some thoughts to contribute as I have been thinking about expressiveness for a long time. I am letting my thoughts distill a bit before sharing.

    In the meantime, two things. First, can you explain (or send a recording) of overblowing (up bend) on a melodica? When I play very softly (almost too soft for performance) my tuning meter will move up maybe a couple of cents. But I have yet to figure out how to bend up significantly at a volume that is useful. You also said in the post that bending down is not possible on the melodica. By combining several techniques together, I can bend down all over the place, particularly the bottom third of the range of the melodica.

    How can we have such a divergence experiences?

    I agree that musical expression results from a combination of the capability of the instrument and the expressive imagination and capability of the player. I am looking forward to the discussion. But, moving beyond words is also good. So, as a precursor to the discussion, I present again a link to Billy Branch on harmonica demonstrating expressiveness at its highest level with a free reed instrument. This is what I mean by expressiveness.



    Lowboy, you’re completely right not to believe me. What a fool I am! OF COURSE you can bend up and down – what I wanted to say was that bending is limited because you can bend up TO a certain note but not FROM a certain note as well as you can bend down FROM a certain note but not TO a certain note. Is that understandable?

    AS soon as I can record again I can give you an example of what I unterstand by “overblowing” on a melodica. But maybe you’ll be a little disappointed, it’s not like overblowing on a certain note like on a saxophone, it’s just the effect of blowing into the pipe of the Vibrandoneon like you would blow into a flute – nevertheless it sounds quite interesting.


    Kevin, good counterpoints. I would say yes, I do not give the standard-design melodica in the hands of a professional enough credit for being expressive. It can be expressive and create beautiful music when played properly. Mostly it is not played properly as Kevin suggested.

    I just want the melodica to be more expressive.

    I also agree that a handsome sexy player in the spotlight would go a long way in popularizing the melodica and giving it a more professional image. But why, as we approach 60 years of melodica production, don’t we have scores of such people?

    Finally, I would respectfully disagree with the comparison to the Hammond organ. I have owned two B-3s, two M-3s, three Leslies, and every digital version of the tone wheel organ made by Hammond. I have played Hammond organ for about 40 years off and on in blues, R&B, and soul bands.

    You really can’t compare a melodica with a Hammond. It is like comparing a trout pond on a farm with the oceans of the world. Without going into loads of details, let’s just say a good soul or gospel or rock organist on stage, solo, with a B-3 and Leslie can burn the house down. It is doubtful that a solo melodica player will ever do that.

    An interesting thought, however, is that I have seen solo harmonica players bring down the house. Huey Lewis does this at a huge arena concert on YouTube. That says a lot about the expressive capability of the $34 dollar Hohner Marine Band.

    I just bought a Marine Band harmonica just so I can immerse myself in the techniques to try and transfer them to the melodica.




    I promised to post a recording of an „overblowing“ effect on the Vibrandoneon; here it is:

    To make it clear from the start: this is not the overblowing of other wind instruments where you can produce harmonics of the note you actually play, these are merely the harmonics of the pipe I use.


    I didn’t mean to compare the melodica to Hammond as it is known today.
    But if instead of all the blues and soul experience you have had, you had like me
    grown up in a house with an older model Hammond(a BC) that not only didn’t have a Leslie
    but was also built before they invented the Hammond percussion you would find the sound somewhat sterile and inexpressive. For a comparison turn the Leslie off, turn vibrato and percussion off and play for a bit.
    I think I’m going to carry this thought over to yet another post.


    In my own humble experience, “Expressiveness” is the quality of being able to bring music to life.
    That said, I believe that expressiveness must unite the capabilities of the player, and the features of the instrument.
    Therefore, I believe that a list such of Quetscher’s is a good way of quantifying the features of the instruments, as these are the playground for the musician.

    That said, the more I play, the less I feel limited from being expressive. But this obviously takes my own setup and needs into account.


    “Don’t play the note. Play the meaning of the note.”

    Powerful thought about expressiveness. I saw this quote a few months ago on a poster in the hall of the Music Department at Westfield State University. I am trying to live by it. Unfortunately I cannot remember the author of the quote.

    Quetscher, very innovative technique. I will have to give that a try.




    This is a great thread.

    I also consider the melodica to be an expressive instrument. I come from a piano background, classically trained, but ended up working as a composer. The piano is a great instrument, but the state of most pianos in venues and studios leave a lot to be desired. So you end up playing digital pianos most of the time.

    Having a small instrument I can take with me is what I’ve always wanted. Add to that the benefits of breath control, and the melodica opens up a lot more expressive capability. So compared to the piano, its a highly expressive instrument!

    I completely agree with you Lowboy, that the harmonica has some fantastic expressive capabilities. I’m a great fan of the instrument. But it’s so closely related to the melodica that its tempting to compare, and see the melodica as the more limited sibling. But remember it is a different instrument, and it has strengths as well – you can play a whole range of chords and intervals. And the sound projects much more without amplification, making it a real contender for acoustic music.

    It just looks a bit funny 🙂

    I constantly work on technique, and am always attempting to make my experience of playing easier, more fun, more throw away. I find that this brings about a natural expression in itself

    Mark O’Trumea

    I learnedthat, in hindu/indian culture, the flute or flute-like instrument was the first instrument beyond the voice. The reason being that it was sort of an extention of the breath. As we know, the voice is quite a versatile and expressive instrument. I’ve played keys for 24 years. I’ve been playing melodica for only 6 months. I prefer the melodica. I don’t think the question should be whether it’s an expressive instrument, rather we should ask “what is the melodica best at expressing?” Different instruments express different things.


    Kevin, you make a good point. One must really work hard at making an old Hammond expressive without percussion, vibrato/chorus, and a Leslie. You have the same key articulations as on the melodica, but no breath control and vibrato.



    So in regards to the expressiveness of the melodica, I have worked and explored the Hohner HM-26/27/32 series of melodicas from every angle for the last 1.5 years to unravel the expressive capabilities of this series of instruments. Even after that length of time, I continue to have breakthroughs every week.

    I think I can now say that I have figured out how to make these Hohner melodicas as expressive as a harmonica. My execution needs refinement in some areas, but I have learned how to: (a) bend notes in the UPPER register, (b) elicit several types of natural acoustic distortion, (c) get lower reeds to respond in sympathy with upper reeds (without playing the lower reeds) (I think that is what I am hearing.), (d) get huge wha wha effects, huge tonal modulations, tremolo/vibrato, and (e) coax moans, grunts, and other tortured but musical sounds from the instrument.

    I plan on making a recording to demonstrate some of these techniques soon. Between work, exploring the expressiveness of the melodica, and trying to get an acoustic musical group off the ground, it seems I have little time for recording. But I am very excited about some of these breakthroughs and would like to share them as soon as I can.



    Alan Brinton

    Seems like only yesterday you set out on this journey, Lowboy. It will be exciting to get a fuller understanding of where it has taken you.

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