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A harmonica is a wind/reed instrument, while a harp is a string instrument. Not much in common really. So why did the humble harmonica (mouth organ) get dubbed 'harp'? And, is it only Blues harps which get this monicker, or all, chromatics included? (Sorry, couldn't resist it!) But still a serious question.

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  • Same question for a jaw harp. I’ve seen all kinds of harmonicas called harps, but I’m not sure how common that is. Also I have a memory of it being short for “mouth harp”. Dec 24, 2022 at 16:15
  • @ToddWilcox - also used to call that a Jew's harp - at least it was the same sort of shape.
    – Tim
    Dec 24, 2022 at 17:03
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    “ Old English hearpe "harp, stringed musical instrument played with the fingers," from Proto-Germanic *harpon- (source also of Old Saxon harpa "instrument of torture;" “ ;) Dec 24, 2022 at 17:09
  • @AndyBonner - perhaps played by 'harpies' - olde Englishe for witches..?
    – Tim
    Dec 24, 2022 at 17:44
  • Why call pretty much any instrument your "axe" ? :-) Dec 25, 2022 at 16:56

2 Answers 2

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Interesting question.

Wikipedia on history of harmonica states, there was a development related to the Aeolina or Aeolian harp. Following the link for Aeolian harp reveals: that one had strings which were played by the wind.

With this in mind I think it's quite obvious to change:

  • wind for air, blown by mouth
  • replacing a string by a flatter version, attached to one point only, called reed, but still a vibrating piece of metal or similar
  • reorganising all components so they can be held in a hand and excited by air from a mouth
  • rename it into French harp or mouth organ.

BTW, here's a nice article about it, too: Why is it called a harp? See the mythical relationship with Aeolos and wind here.

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The harmonica has gone under many names, including mouth harp and French harp. The connection to Aeolian harps @MS-SPO mentions is possible, but in any case the names alluding to harps are very old, 200 years or so, as old as the instrument itself. The best place to read about this (as about most things harmonica-related) is at Pat Missin's.

Musical instruments often borrow names between various different types. Instruments called zampogna (with various spellings) can be either bagpipes or pan pipes, depending on where in the world you are, and a ney or nay or nai could be almost anything as well, depending on who you ask.

When harmonicas started to show up, it's only natural people would compare them to other kinds of instruments. Stringed harps have all the notes arranged after each other, and arpeggios and chords can be played without any fretting, and with harmonicas sharing these features it seems like an analogy as natural as any.

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