The harmonica is a common (and relatively affordable) free-reed woodwind instrument played in many musical genres. With such a vast catalogue of songs, genres and harmonica types, it's no wonder so many people pick up the harmonica. Additionally, there are a surprising number of benefits associated with learning how to play the harmonica and practicing/playing regularly.
Whether you're at the stage of considering learning the harmonica or the stage of performing professionally, there are so many benefits to learning and playing the instrument. Regardless of experience level, it is my hope to inspire you to learn how to play the harmonica by sharing what I consider the top 11 benefits.
The top 11 benefits of learning and playing harmonica are:
- Improves Coordination/Dexterity
- Strengthens Breathing
- Improves Discipline & Concentration
- Builds Confidence
- Introduces A New Language
- Provides A Creative Outlet
- Building Relationships
- Improves Memory
- Enhances The Understanding Of Music
- Yields Translatable Skills For Other Woodwind Instruments
- Therapeutic Benefits
- Bonus Benefit 1: Monetizing Your Skills
- Bonus Benefit 2: Opportunity To Learn Instrument Upkeep & Construction
In this article, we'll discuss each of the benefits listed above to understand better how learning and playing the harmonica can improve our lives.
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Learning & Playing Harmonica Improves Coordination/Dexterity
This one may seem like a stretch, but although harmonica may not require the same level of dexterity as other instruments (take a drum kit, for example), it still demands proper coordination between our hands, mouths and respiratory system.
To play the harmonics proficiently, we must be able to match our inhales and exhales with the proper positioning for the notes we intend to produce. This takes a surprising level of dexterity to produce music with the rhythm and timbre we want from the harmonica.
The increased coordination we developed through playing the harmonica will transfer to other parts of our lives where small, controlled movements can make big differences.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Strengthens Breathing
The harmonica is an interesting woodwind instrument, capable of producing notes when we blow air into it (blow notes) and suck air out of it (draw notes). While this may certainly allow the musician to play more continuously than other woodwinds, it also comes with its own set of challenges.
Developing the technique to play the harmonica proficiently requires relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. Naturally, this will require conscious effort to achieve, which translates to everyday life one way or another.
Working our diaphragms and controlling our breath to play the harmonica gives us a good workout and helps strengthen our breathing and overall respiratory system.
Music therapy, including learning instruments like the harmonica, help improve already healthy respiratory systems. It also shows promising effects on improving the overall respiratory health of those living with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (source).
Strengthening the respiratory system and breath control improves our overall health and has benefits beyond music, spanning to exercise, meditation and more. Furthermore, learning and practicing the harmonica improves our breathing in a wonderfully relaxed way.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Improves Discipline & Concentration
Learning any musical instrument from the ground up takes dedication and concentration. While the harmonica may seem like a simple instrument, it's no exception to the rule. Mastering the harmonica (and the various styles of harmonica) demands strong discipline and concentration.
Thankfully, these attributes can be refined over time. As we improve our discipline and concentration with the harmonica, we'll find that these traits carry over to other interests in life. Amazing things can happen when we put in the work, have fun, and learn simultaneously.
Learning the basics of the harmonica presents a fairly steep learning curve, which requires work to overcome. Mastering the instrument demands unwavering resolve to the craft.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Builds Confidence
Becoming proficient at playing the harmonica, like any other instrument, will increase our confidence. The Meriam-Webster Dictionary defined self-confidence as the “confidence in oneself and in one's powers and abilities”. Knowing deep down that you put in the time to develop your skills on the harmonica is an empowering feeling.
One great thing about performing with the harmonica is that it naturally tends to take a lead role in music. Therefore, playing live will put you in the spotlight, at least periodically. While this may seem frightening at first, there are few situations to help build confidence than playing a lead instrument in front of an audience.
Developing the confidence to perform in front of friends, family, strangers and even virtually/online will pay dividends in many other areas of our lives.
Having the confidence to learn what you're interested in is paramount to success and happiness, in my opinion.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Introduces A New Language
Music is often considered its own language, and by learning and mastering the harmonica, we can play music that extends beyond the spoken language.
Jamming and performing can be thought of as having a conversation with the musicians around you, especially when improvising on the harmonica. Developing your own style and musical phrases is akin to developing your style of speaking.
Music tells stories, and the harmonica can invoke a number of emotions and feelings in the player and listener.
In addition to the harmonica itself, the song arrangement, harmonic movement, rhythm, lead/melodic lines, and the general feel of the musical composition are all part of the language in their own right.
Furthermore, studies show that learning a musical instrument like the harmonica helps strengthen the same parts of the brain responsible for language processing (source). Learning harmonica introduces the language of music and enhances our brain's ability to learn other languages.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Provides A Creative Outlet
Music presents a fairly evident creative outlet, especially when playing a musical instrument like the harmonica. Learning to play the harmonica gives us a creative outlet to write our own music and also to perform the music of others in our own fashion.
Musical creativity may or may not come naturally to us. Either way, learning the harmonica is an excellent instrument to develop such creativity and bring it to the world.
Studies show that learning musical instruments like the harmonica creates connections between the brain's two hemispheres. Learning the harmonica and regular playing/practicing can actually increase the size of the corpora callosa, the bundle of axons that effectively connects the two hemispheres (source). We add additional ways of thinking (consciously and subconsciously) with new neural pathways, which surely improves our ability to create innovative and unique musical ideas.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Helps Build Relationships
Music brings musicians and non-musicians together. It's an inherently valuable art form in cultures across the world and is celebrated as such. Learning the harmonica and performing with it will help you build relationships with music lovers wherever you go.
First off, let's consider the teacher-student relationship. If you choose to go down the path of hiring a harmonica teacher to help you learn, you'll build a relationship with that teacher by default. This is true of in-person lessons and one-on-one online lessons.
Once you've learned how to play sufficiently, you can become a teacher yourself and build relationships with your own students.
This may seem obvious, but musicians play music with other musicians. Learning to play the harmonica will make it easier for you to connect with other musicians.
Whether you start a band, join a marching band or orchestra, or simply jam for fun, becoming a skilled harmonica player will get you noticed by other musicians.
Speaking of getting noticed, if you've developed the skill and confidence to play live, you'll certainly meet venue owners, music fans and other musicians. Music excels as a social art, and it makes it much easier to meet new people and develop deeper connections.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Improves Memory
There are plenty of studies that have been conducted to investigate the correlation between memory and learning a musical instrument. Our memory can be improved by putting our brains to work (source), and the work required to learn and play the harmonica and other musical instruments is an excellent stimulus to improve memory.
The auditory and tactile stimulation make learning harmonica a definite brain workout. In particular, learning a musical instrument like the harmonica will stimulate the amygdala and hippocampus, which play a role in emotions and memories (source).
Consider all the factors of learning and playing the harmonica that involve memory:
- Memorizing songs (with rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre/tone)
- The notes of the harmonica (depending on the type and/or key of the harmonica)
- Chord arpeggio positions
- Theoretical knowledge of music (rhythm, harmony, melody)
While learning and playing the harmonica, we stimulate the hippocampus, which activates neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons. Neurogenesis is linked to improved learning and memory (source).
Learning & Playing Harmonica Enhances The Understanding Of Music
For such a seemingly simple instrument, the harmonica can teach us a lot about the art of music.
Perhaps we can begin with diatonic harmonicas, which are tuned to a specific key. Learning the specific notes for each hole, blow and draw within a diatonic harmonic will teach up about the notes of whatever key the harmonica happens to be in. Players also tend to learn about relative majors and minors quickly and how diatonic harmonicas can double in major and minor keys, though with different playability.
As for chromatic harmonicas, players must develop the skills and precisions to play in a variety of keys with a single instrument.
Either way, the harmonica trains the ear rather quickly as the player blows and draws the appropriate notes.
Blues harmonica is perhaps the most popular, and learning this particular style will develop a deepened understanding of the typical Blues changes and standards.
It's also often a lead instrument, which automatically teaches the player, in one way or another, about being the focal point of the music. This is an important lesson in music and life.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Yields Translatable Skills For Other Woodwind Instruments
Harmonicas are definitely unique, as they're free-reed woodwind instruments. However, that doesn't mean there are no transferable skills between harmonicas and single-reed, double-reed or reedless woodwinds.
Breath control is the primary skill that can be transferred. Of course, harmonicas are capable of draw notes (when we breathe in), but the controlled exhalations required of the harmonica will translate to other woodwinds nicely. Additionally, the breath control will come in handy with brass instruments (such as the trumpet, trombone and tuba) even though they are in a different family of musical instruments.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Has Therapeutic Benefits
Debra Shipman (Ph.D. RN) states, “Learning to play a musical instrument provides a peaceful retreat from the pressures of daily life. Therapeutic outcomes of playing music include better communication skills, improved emotional release and decreased anxiety and agitation. Musical training promotes cognitive function, mental health, and a connection to others.” (source)
Music is being studied thoroughly as a promising tool for therapy for the brain, lungs and heart (source). These health benefits are readily available with regular practice on the harmonica. The American Music Therapy Association lists the following benefits of music therapy:
- Promote Wellness
- Manage Stress
- Alleviate Pain
- Express Feelings
- Enhance Memory
- Improve Communication
- Promote Physical Rehabilitation
Learning & Playing Harmonica Bonus Benefit 1: Monetizing Your Skills
While you may want only to learn the harmonica as a personal hobby or to play with friends, there are certainly ways to monetize your skills once you become sufficiently good.
As you develop your skills and voice with the harmonica, there are many different avenues to monetize your playing. Here are just a few to consider:
- Performing original music live (in clubs, coffee shops and even busking)
- Performing covers live
- Record streaming royalties from original music
- Teaching harmonica lessons
- Recording as a session harmonicist
There are plenty of other opportunities to monetize harmonica-playing skills. Marketable skills (whether they're high-paying and/or capitalized on or not) are undoubtedly a benefit of learning and playing the harmonica.
Learning & Playing Harmonica Bonus Benefit 2: Opportunity To Learn Instrument Upkeep & Construction
Learning and playing harmonica isn't only about playing the instrument. We also learn about the inner workings of the instruments themselves. Leaning the harmonica gives us a great opportunity to learn about the physics of sound and musical instruments more generally.
Furthermore, learning the general upkeep of harmonica teaches us about plenty of other topics, including:
- How to disassemble and reassemble harmonicas
- How air vibrates reeds to produce sound
- The effects of humidity on metal
- How to clean harmonicas for optimal health and performance