Stephen Burt on the Melodica

INSTRUMENT

MELODICA

CENTRAL QUESTION:How can we tell the difference—if there is one—between art for kids and art for adults?
Parts of a Hohner melodica (sold separately):mouthpiece, extension tube, individual keys; Partial list of varieties of melodica: twenty-six-key, thirty-two-key, thirty-six-key, alto, bass, Ocean, Fire; Precursors: sheng, sho, keyed Aeolian, pitch pipe, symphonium, harmonicor, goofus, keyboard sitar; Notable melodica appearances in recorded music: “Rockers Dub” by Augustus Pablo, “Melodica” by Steve Reich, “A Little Melodica” by Peter Tosh, “5:45” by Gang of Four, “Your Silent Face” by New Order, “And We Danced” by the Hooters, “The Chills” by the Receptionists, “Burning Hearts” by My Favorite, “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz, “Music with Horses” by Makoto Nomura, “Footsteps” by Pocketbooks

Almost every melodica, mine among them, looks like a toy piano keyboard on top of a rectangle stuck to a big kazoo. The keys work like those on an accordion, opening up space for air to move through a reed; unlike accordion reeds, though, melodica reeds sound when the player blows air directly into the instrument, either through a thumb-sized nozzle at one end or through a siphon-like plastic tube. Playing a melodica is a visceral experience, even for beginners: your breath leads directly to each note, almost as if you could play a melody on a trumpet or a trombone on your first try. One note at a time, the melodica’s big, thick timbres suggest those of a distorted clarinet. Chords or tone clusters sound more like the instrument’s older relatives: the accordion, the harmonium, the harmonica. And the melodica isn’t very old. Related instruments date back to East Asian antiquity, but the word is a brand name, created by the Hohner company around 1959.