The Melodica, also known as the Wind Piano can be described as a free reed system with a mouthpiece, air chamber, and keyboard. The Melodica sounds very much like a keyboard harmonica (although it is a tad more difficult to bend notes on it as you are further from the reeds) and it produces sound only exhaling into not inhaling. When playing more than one note at a time (polyphonic) the Melodica can sound very reminiscent of an accordion. Aside from these two analogies the instrument has an identity of its own. The miscellaneous versions of wind pianos cover ranges from soprano, alto, and the hard to find bass in 1 to 3 octave boards. Tone, action, key-size as well as dynamic range vary from manufacturer. All are incased in plastic with an exception of the Wood Mylodica. The reeds are made of metal (like an accordion or a harmonica). Melodicas have a rectangular shape and they are held with one hand (a handle is located underneath most of the instruments). And the keyboard is played with the other hand. Most of the melodicas we sell have a flexible tube that allows the board to be played horizontally on a table. (Hohner stopped providing one for their large ,no longer manufactured, HM-36 melodica so we now provide our own version of it for our customers). On the left side is a hole/mouthpiece. To the far right of the keyboard is the air release button. This button can be depressed while holding the melodica so the mouthpiece area in facing downward. Gently shaking the melodica allows gravity to expel moisture from the instrument. In a playing situation, by holding the release button down while playing, you can reduce the volume coming from the melodica like the soft pedal on a piano.
How to hold the instrument:
Hold the melodica with the left hand as these are right handed instruments. I place my hand between the instrument and the handle. Press lips around the mouthpiece, ensuring that all sides are closed. Stay relaxed and experiment with what feels & sounds right. Many melodicas come with a flex tube allowing you move, play, and see the instrument at different angles. As ridiculous as this may look it is my preferred method of play. I often place the melodica & flex tube on my piano and play with one hand on each instrument. If playing the small red or green Hohner melodicas with the chicklet keys, hold like a sandwich with both hands. One hand plays the white keys the other hand plays the black keys.
How to play:
The two main concepts to be addressed when approaching the melodica are hand technique & breath control.Like singing it may be easier to play if you are standing. For smooth passages (legato) use the “breath mode”, namely breathe air into the instrument. For heavier passages use the palate attack, using air as in whistling either more or less, as required. The tongue can be used for short and precise note values (staccato). In this way suitable articulation for all kinds of playing will develop. Quickly vary your breath to create tremolo (change in volume). This is the melodicas version of vibrato (change in pitch).
Caution: A fast intense burst of air can knock your reed out of alignment. It’s an instrument not a birthday cake. Think of it as blowing into a balloon. The harder/faster you blow the louder your keyboard will sound. The more notes you play at the same time the softer the instrument may sound as you are displacing air thru more reeds. Experiment.
As mentioned earlier it is more difficult to bend notes on a melodica than a Hohner harmonica as you are further from the reeds. It is however possible to achieve. While holding down a key and blowing steadily, slowly lift your finger allowing the key to rise (so it is at the point where the air flow is incomplete or choking the reed). At this time you will hear the pitch drop. A technique can be developed where by playing pressing the keys half way down while blowing, this Bending of notes will occur.
Next, address the instruments keyboard. There are few books out on how to play the melodica. Some people will naturally just begin to listen, play & find melodies, and via trial and error begin to put together a style. If you are just starting out and have never played a keyboard before I recommend acquiring a basic piano book of scales and the appropriate fingering. This is necessary regardless if you plan to read music or not. It is a great system for exposing yourself to different keys and developing a hand system for passing the thumb under the fingers allowing you to play longer phrases (sentences). While there are many ways to approach music having a proper foundation may allow one more options. Many beginning books for chord organ, recorder, flute, piano, organ, harmonica, etc will have simple melodies written in treble clef. If you are willing to take the time to learn to read music (can’t be any harder than reading this article) you will find a wealth of melodies to play on your melodica. Another approach is to learn by ear. This is my favorite way to attack music. Play along recordings are becoming popular for a variety of styles and finding a local jam session is another way to meet musicians and learn.
Conceptually aside from proper scale fingering I tend to think of this less as a piano and more like a horn/harmonica/accordion. Spend the time and listen to other instruments for ideas. World music works extremely well on the melodica. Traditional French, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Choros & Jamaican folk music’s are some of my favorites. The strong melodies fit well in a 3 octave range. To start think of simple melodies. Be aware of the range of your melodica and be prepared to transpose or change octaves to accommodate your song. My suggestion is to start with scales and play against a metronome. Practice playing time/pulse. It will seem different at first. Just like talking you take a breath between sentences. Experiment and enjoy the uncharted territory of your new instrument.
While much of the charm of this instrument is its portability and acoustic qualities I am often asked about the electric possibilities of the Melodica. Hohner attempted a electric melodica but problems and cost stopped its mass production. In 1982 the one octave Starwind made a splash with a 5 octave range, filter, waveforms, & portamento. Suzuki had once manufactured a monophonic MIDI melodica but no longer produces it. KORG custom built one called the PEPE for keyboard wizard Joe Zawinul. See picture of it in on the photo page. The PEPE was not mass produced but it can heard on CD’s by the Zawinul Syndicate- Immigrants and on Black Fire. It reminds me of a soprano sax on many of the solos.
How to make a MIDI Melodica:
There are two devices out on the market today allowing adventurous keyboard players the ability to hybrid your your favorite MIDI keyboard into a electric melodica. Aside from different sounds this also allows you an extended octave range. You will need a YAMAHA BC Mouthpiece, a small device you blow into. Yamaha is currently selling the BC3, but the earlier model BC2 & BC1 will work also. Several Yamaha & Kurzweil synthesizers have input jacks supporting this device already built into the synthesizer. For the synthesizers that do not have this built in interface, the BC Mouthpiece requires a Midi solutions Breath Controller,a small MIDI interface box that converts voltage input to a MIDI output into your synthesizer. This controller is very powerful and allows one to program a variety of MIDI control messages. It can be used with most MIDI synthesizers. You can set it up as when you play keys on your synthesizer nothing happens till you blow into the mouthpiece controlling volume, like a melodica. Most synthesizers can be set up like this giving you a great Electric MIDI Melodica. I have sampled my Hohner melodica on my Yamaha EX5 and play it with the breath controller. This gives me an extended range, allows me to use on board effects, use controllers and defeat the purpose of having a real melodica. Other devices that support the BC3 include the ancient YAMAHA MCS2 or some Kurzweil products. Another alternative is to mic your existing melodica into the wide variety of electronic effects available. Lots of uncharted territory.
Care of the melodica:
When not in use keep the instrument in its box to protect it from dust, dirt and children. Make sure the box is vented to minimize condensation. Cold temperature also affects the smooth working of the reeds, so let the instrument warm up to room temperature before playing. Playing a melodica that is cooler than room temperature will put condensation on the reeds. Caution: Do not leave a melodica in hot car during summer. Temps above 90 degrees may reduce your wind piano to a warp piano (distant unplayable relative).
Periodically open the moisture vent located on end of melodica opposite the mouthpiece, by pressing the button especially immediately after playing, and blow through the instrument without pressing any of the keys or hold melodica vertically and shake up and down. This will remove most condensation which may have collected. Shake the flex tube to expel moisture. From time to time these instruments like their cousins the harmonica/accordion/organ require some reeds to be tuned. This site offers a brief (needed to be updated) tutorial on how to tune a melodica.
This is an fun-to-learn modern wind instrument for young and old to make their own music. They are very inexpensive compared to pianos, synthesizers, accordions, pipe organs and anything else on the market today. They are fantastic for recording, solo, ensemble playing, and strolling. They are also useful in musical education as an introduction to all keyboards. Much of its charm comes from the expressiveness and compact size. I take mine out in my kayak, backpacking, vacations, car (carlodica), and always on the gig. I’ve always found it interesting to blend the sound of a $20,000.00 violin with a $80.00 melodica.
They are the most recent of the mass produced acoustic instruments. They are not made in the United States. This may explains why many people do not know what they are, why many styles of music have yet to incorporate them, and why the great Keyboard Magazine, in publication for over twenty years, has yet to do an article on them! (Still waiting Keyboard). Caution: These instruments can be extremely addictive. Addicts may need to join Steves 12 half step program.
Busking is the practice of doing live performances in public places to entertain people, usually to solicit donations and tips. Those engaging in this practice are called buskers. Busking is a British term used in many areas of the English-speaking world. The melodica is the perfect instrument for busking. The instrument itself always generates attention, and a well played performance is generally rewarded with nice tips. Over the last several years while busking in Europe I have discovered that permits in major cities are required to busk. Having a portable instrument like the melodica also allows one the advantage to make a fast exit when pursued by LE.