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Are lower key harmonicas (G and A, for example) technically harder to bend than the ones with a higher key, such as E or D? If so, do I need to use some other technique on lower key harmonicas in order to achieve a nice sounding bend?

I'm asking this because last week I bought an harmonica in the key of A. However, I'm finding it much harder to bend (and play, actually) on the lower holes (between 0 and 6) than my other harmonicas (E, D and F - all of the same good quality).

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3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Technically Fergus's answer which got no votes at all till my arrival was the most correct answer to the particular question asked; Lower notes have longer or heavier reeds, and thus more momentum to overcome for bending.

That is only half the answer however.

Bending is not about volume of air, over-blowing, or adjacent reeds as was mistakenly imagined for a century. Fortunately some great YouTube videos are demonstrating the correct concept these days, and how to easily apply it.

Bending is about resonant frequencies. More specifically one shapes their mouth cavity until it has a size which resonates with the fundamental frequency of a reed (or even one of the harmonic frequencies of that reed). Once you have latched onto the reed with a resonant mouth cavity, you can then reshape your mouth cavity such that a slightly different frequency resonates instead. - Harmonica bending is essentially the same thing as Tuvan throat singing, except that the vibrator is outside and adapts to the changes in resonance.

Now, back to the answer. The easiest bending is where the resonant force is strongest, which is up near the front teeth where the reflections are shorter and the helmholz resonator cavity is tighter. Lower notes have longer wavelengths, so where the tip of the tongue was sufficient to bend high notes, one would have to reform the back of the tongue instead for a harmonica in a lower key.

As with singing, there are several resonant centers in the human windpipes, and all of them can have some easy useful effect on harmonica tonality. There are two similar concepts taking place in a harmonica. One is bending, which is to latch on to a tone and shift it. The other is resonant amplification in which one simply strengthens a tone or any of the higher harmonic tones which a reed produces.

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After over a year of asking this question, your answer kind of surprised me with it's quality. Thanks. – Streppel Apr 7 at 12:15

What about an engineer who is into music : )

Lower pitched notes require more air on the harmonia. The "length" of their vibration is also larger (so lower frequency).

This means you will be inhaling a greater voume of air to achieve the pressure difference required to reach the bend. This will usually be particularly noticeable on the first hole.

Take a look at the bending techniques described here, that might help you. Also, is the lower tuned harmonica of the same brand? As there might be some differences in the reeds used and a lower quality harmonica might be more difficult to bend correctly.

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The absolute change in frequency is smaller for lower pitches, not larger. eg 0.97 Hz between C0 and C#0, 249 Hz between C8 and C#8. Not that it matters, the proportional difference is constant for all notes so it is a null point and should be removed from the answer. – Fergus Feb 19 '14 at 3:52
You are right. I was referring to the wavelength, not the frequency. I have adapted the answer. – dorien Feb 19 '14 at 8:27
For a fixed wave speed such as sound in air, wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency so my initial comment still applies... – Fergus Feb 19 '14 at 8:49
Ok, I see what you mean. Within one timeframe the change in frequency is the same, but the change for one "wave" will be bigger for lower notes, which is what got me confused. So because you look at a fixed timeframe, this doesn't matter. Will remove the sentence. – dorien Feb 19 '14 at 8:57

This question is more suited to physics. stack exchange but here is a basic answer anyway...

Lower notes correspond to greater vibrating mass. Newtons second laws tells us tells us that force is proportional to mass for a given acceleration.

Force=mass x acceleration

So a greater force is required to vibrate a lower pitched reed. However, there are many variables in the case of the harmonica,: reed geometry, chamber geometry, reed material (elasticity, density, resonance characteristics etc), flow rate and it's relation to apparent force required, apparent volume, and most importantly how these variables change through the instruments range and during bending.

I have left a lot out, of you want more detailed answers try the physics stack exchange

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damn you science!!! – Alexander Troup Feb 14 '14 at 20:56
Thank you for your answer, I really appreciate it. I'm not looking for a completely theoretical answer, though, so this is why I think music.SE is a better place to ask this instead of physics.SE. – Streppel Feb 14 '14 at 21:23

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