Melodica Interest

What is a melodica?

The melodica is a handheld musical instrument with a mouthpiece and piano-style keyboard.

The player blows through the mouthpiece, and presses one or more keys on the keyboard to produce a sound. It sounds like a cross between a harmonica (mouth organ) and a piano accordion.

The melodica is part of the ‘free reed’ family of musical instruments.

How many keys does a melodica have?

Melodicas typically come in two keyboard sizes:

32 keys: Starting at F3 (just below middle C on a piano), and ending on C6

32 Key Melodica

37 keys: Starting at F3 (just below middle C) and ending at F6

37 Key Melodica

There’s also many other sizes, ranging from 26 keys (or smaller!) to 44 keys.

Having less keys limits the amount of songs you can play on your melodica.

The more keys, the less likely you are to run out of notes!

What are the different melodica models?

The vast majority of melodicas are alto melodicas.

But you do occasionally see a soprano melodica, which sounds one octave (8 notes) higher than an alto melodica.

The very first Hohner melodica, was a soprano model.

Hohner Melodica Soprano

There’s only one melodica that can be classed as a tenor melodica.

That’s the Hammond 44.

It has 44 keys, ranging from the C3 (an octave below middle C) up to G6

Hammond 44 HP

There’s also 2 bass melodicas, both made by Suzuki.

One is the Suzuki B24 Bass Melodion, and the other is the Hammond Melodion Pro 24B (with internal mics).

Both of these keyboards are just under two octaves, ranging from the F2 to E4.

Suzuki Melodeon B24

One quirk of these bass melodicas is that the notes can take a while to sound after you’ve started playing.

This is known as a ‘slow attack’.

They also take more air to play than the altos, because the reeds are bigger.

When was the melodica invented?

The word ‘melodica’ was invented in 1958 by the Hohner Melodica Company in Germany.

Their first model was the iconic green Hohner Melodica Soprano, which had buttons rather than keys.

The word ‘melodica’ is a trademark belonging to Hohner, so technically they are the only company allowed to call their instruments melodicas.

Their second issue, also in 1958, was the red Hohner melodica alto

Hohner Melodica Alto 1958

But in the same year, we also saw the invention of the Clavietta in Italy

The Clavietta was much more like the melodicas we know today, with a piano style keyboard. It used high quality stainless steel reeds, and produced a beautiful sound.

It was designed by Andre Borel, and used by Nat King Cole and other high profile musicians of the era.

It’s made largely of metal, and can occasionally be found on Ebay.

Clavietta 1958

The history of the melodica goes way back further than the 1958

The earliest melodica-style instrument in existence today is the Harmoniphon.

Currently housed at the Met Museum in New York, it’s “a free reed instrument patented in 1836 by Paris, Lecrosnier and Tremblai …A player would blow into a tube that provided air to sound the reeds, while using the keyboard to direct the actual pitches.”

Harmoniphon 1836

What is the button at the bottom of the melodica for?

Moisture release button

When you play the melodica, condensation from your breath collects on the metal reeds inside.

You might have encountered a wet melodica after an hour or so of playing – the notes stop working or start making strange sounds.

The ‘moisture release button’ at the end of the keyboard allows you to release that moisture.

Just blow through the mouthpiece while pressing the button.

How do you look after a melodica?

After each playing session, use the moisture release button to blow out any condensation

Leave the melodica upside down overnight, so the moisture can drain out.

When not playing, store the melodica it in its case or in an area protected from dust.

Avoid eating directly before playing, to avoid small food particles becoming lodged in the reeds, and avoid sugary drinks while playing.

How do you clean a melodica?

Cleaning a melodica can help it play more smoothly, eliminate bacteria, and remove any unpleasant odours

For plastic melodicas, follow these steps:

  1. Fill a plastic tub, or sink with warm water
  2. Add a cup of vinegar
  3. Submerge the whole instrument in the bowl of water
  4. Press the keys and moisture button to remove any internal air
  5. Leave the melodica submerged for one hour
  6. Take the melodica out and blow while pressing the moisture button. The notes should begin to sound
  7. Leave the melodica standing on its end overnight in a warm place

For vintage or wooden melodicas:

  1. Mix approximately half a litre of water with 50ml of vinegar
  2. Remove the mouthpiece or tube of the melodica
  3. Carefully pour a small amount of the vinegar solution through the mouthpiece opening
  4. Cover the opening with your thumb, and shake the melodica gently
  5. Pour the solution out through the mouthpiece opening, and dispose of it
  6. Repeat this three times
  7. Blow into the melodica while pressing the moisture button. The notes should begin to sound
  8. Leave the melodica standing on its end overnight in a warm place

But is the melodica a real instrument?

Although the melodica can look like a toy, it’s increasingly being used as a serious instrument.

When skilfully played, it can compete with any of the more established and traditional instruments.

Professional musicians and composers have started taking the melodica seriously, developing techniques such as circular breathing and 2 handed playing while standing.

Akeo Minamikawa plays with two hands

How does a melodica work?

When the melodica player blows, the air travels through the mouthpiece and into a reed chamber. It continues to pass through a reed.

But what are reeds?

Reeds have two sections:

1) A frame, which is like a tiny metal window frame

2) A tongue, which is a tiny slither of metal attached to the inside of the frame

As air passes through the reed frame, it causes the tongue to vibrate.

The vibrating changes the shape of the air flow, into something called a sound wave.

This is the sound we hear.

There’s one separate reed for every note on a melodica. Each one is a different size – the smaller the reed, the higher the note.

The bigger the reed, the lower the sound

Other instruments which use reeds, and have a similar sound to the melodica:

  • Harmonica, which is like a melodica without the keys
  • Accordion, which uses bellows instead of lungs to provide air
  • Pump organ, which has a full size piano keyboard and bellows
  • Concertina, which uses buttons and a tiny bellows

Can you play chords on a melodica?

Yes, just like a piano, you can play chords on a melodica.

The melodica is polyphonic, meaning you can play two or more notes at the same time.

The more notes you, play, the more air you will need. Chords of more than three notes can be hard work.

Tip: On a melodica, the lowest notes in a chord are the loudest.

Try playing the melody notes at the bottom of the chord instead of the top.

Who plays melodica?

The first player to really popularise the melodica in the 1970s was Augustus Pablo.

He was a Jamaican dub artist, who become obsessed with the melodica at a young age, and used it in most of his recordings.

Augustus Pablo playing a Hohner Piano 27

Currently, Jon Batiste, a Jazz musician from new Orleans, plays a Suzuki Pro 37 v2, which sounds great in jazz and folk music.

There are also several pop bands who use the melodica in their songs.

What are other names for the melodica?

The melodica is also known as the:

  • melodyhorn
  • pianica
  • blow organ
  • key flute
  • vibrandoneon
  • clavietta
  • melodeon
  • diamonica
  • wind piano
  • keyboard harmonica

How are melodicas made?

Mass produced modern melodicas are made mainly of plastic.

There’s several moving parts, each of which are formed using a process called injection molding.

This is where plastic is heated until it is liquid, and then mechanically injected into a metal mold.

Once the plastic has cooled, the mold is removed, to reveal a highly detailed solid plastic part.

Plastic part of a Yamaha Pianica

The reeds are always made of metal, and create the sound as air passes through them.

Reeds in a Clavietta

High end, bespoke melodicas can be made of wood and involve considerable craftsmanship.

Daren Banarsë (the author) uses a combination of wood, metal and 3D printing to create high quality melodicas.

See one being made here!

Wooden melodica by Daren Banarsë

Wooden Melodicas

Some professional melodica players prefer to play melodicas that are made primarily from wood.

The instrument looks more professional, and generates a warmer sound.

Suzuki is the only company currently offering a mass produced wooden melodica.

It’s called the Suzuki W-37.

The wooden parts are made of mahogany and beech, but the internal parts are plastic.

Suzuki W37 Melodeon

The Vibrandoneon is a fully wooden melodica, and was marketed by Victoria Accordions.

It’s a high quality instrument following the design of the piano accordion rather than the more recent melodicas.

Although it looks and sounds beautiful, it’s known to suffer from condensation issues.

See the Vibrandoneon in action on YouTube


Melodica microphones

There are two ways to use a microphone with a melodica.

The first is to use a tiny microphone which attaches to the inside of the melodica.

They’re called pickup or contact mics.

These microphones are perfect for playing on stage, as they’re small, and attached to the instrument. They enable the player to freely move around, without picking up the sound of other loud instruments.

A drawback of using these mics is that they sometimes pick up the sound of the keys moving.

Take a look at the Myers 3” micro goose neck.

Myers pick up microphone

The Hammond 44 is the only melodica with built in pick up mics.

You simply plug one end of a cable into the melodica, and the other into an amplifier or mixer.

Hammond 44 HP

The other way to use a microphone, is setting it up about 12 inches or 30cm from the melodica.

This is great for studio recording, or in an environment where there’s no noisy instruments nearby.

Because the microphone is set back from the instrument, it captures a fuller, more natural sound, and there’s no sound of the keys clanking.

Because melodicas are quite high pitched, they work well with dynamic microphones, which tend to round off the higher frequencies.

Good results have been achieved with the microphones on Zoom recorders, and also with the Shure SM57.

For the very best quality sound, use a large diaphragm condenser mic, such as the AKG C414.

AKG C414 Condensor Microphone

What are the best melodicas?

When choosing a melodica to buy, there’s many choices to make.

Melodicas fall under three categories:

  • Level 1: under $30, for beginners
  • Level 2: $75-$110, for more serious players
  • Level 3: $500-$1,300, for high end instruments
  • Level 4: $2,000 plus, for bespoke melodicas

Take a look at the melodica buying guide, which has specific recommendations.

Questions are welcome in the comments!

Related articles: How to tune a melodica | Learn to play a melodica

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