Music Theory I

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Grand Score

Music Theory for the Chromatic Harmonica

Music theory in general can be a very baffling thing to the uninitiated. Broadly speaking it is a huge subject and something that you can continue to study & learn about for as long as one would care to. However there is a point at which you can start from and can be used in practice.

If you have doubts about learning music theory and read music, Richard Martin has provided Chromatic Harmonica Reference with a reprinted article What it takes to become a successful harmonica player.

This section is aimed at 12 or 16 hole Chromatic Harmonicas in key of C, Solo layout.

Recommended Music Theory Sites

I highly recommend visiting the following links.
They are very clearly presented with the beginner in mind:

Ricci Adam's MusicTheory.Net This is about the most straight forward music notation & music theory site I have seen to date. Please take a minute to drop Ricci Adams and tell him what you think of it.

Music Instruction By A Computer Has a good selection of topics about reading music & understanding basic music theory.

Easy Music Theory Is a series of simple step by step lessons complete with exercises on reading music & understanding basic theory.

Introduction to Reading Music Is a step by step section on how to read and understand music score. Very simple straight forward reading.

Music Theory and History of Music, an extensive and informative website.

Theory of Music: Online guides and lessons says it all.

These and other music theory sites can be found in the Music Theory III page.

The remainder of this page was submitted by Vern Smith.
Edited and updated by G

Introduction to Music Theory

Submitted by Vern Smith

Music theory was formulated by observing repeating patterns in music literature and expressing them as "rules." It seems unlikely that early composers were aware of these "rules" when writing the music from which they are drawn. However the rules are extremely useful to the student seeking to quickly understand the structure of music.


All of the rules have exceptions. For brevity, this summary presents the rules and leaves the discussion of the exceptions to others. This summary is intended for chromatic harmonica musicians interested in Western Classical, popular, Blues & Jazz, and American folk music. Those interested in ethnic folk music, advanced Jazz, and the music of Eastern cultures will find a good basis to work from here, but will need to look further afield for additional comprehensive guidance.

1. The Chromatic Scale

Modern Western music is based on the chromatic scale wherein all of the steps are equal and are called halftones. These are the fundamental building blocks on which everything else is built, so you need to get very familiar with them.
The audio frequency of each step is 1.059463 (the twelfth root of two) times the adjacent step below.
A chromatic scale may be played on a piano by playing 12 of the adjacent, (black and white), keys in sequence.
The ear wants to finish on the thirteenth note which is the first note of the next higher octave.

Each note of the chromatic has one or two names consisting of a letter A through G and sometimes a halftone modifier; "sharp" (#) and "flat" (b). The pairs of note names are called enharmonics.

Key of C Chromatic Scale

C Chromatic Scale

Click on score to listen to the scale.

Chromatic Scale Notes On a key of C Chrom

Hole           10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Blow, Slide Out 
Blow, Slide In   Db Ab Db Db Ab Db Db Ab Db Db Ab Db
Draw, Slide Out 
Draw, Slide In   Eb Gb Bb Eb Gb Bb Eb Gb Bb Eb Gb Bb

On a 12 hole C harp, the hole-1 blow note is middle C on the piano.
On a 16 hole harp, the 1st blow note is an octave below middle C.
Some 16 hole harps are numbered from 1 to 16. For these hole 1 is an octave below middle C and holes 5-8, 9-12, 13-16 have the same layout as a 12 hole harp.
On some 16 hole harps the first octave holes are numbered 1 to 4 with dots above them. The remaining holes are numbered 1 to 12 which are exactly the same as a 12 hole harp.

Click here for a full music score layout of the 16 hole chromatic harp. (237 KB)
Courtesy of Richard Martin

This arrangement (much despised by beginning students) is called solo tuning and is redundant and complex, but is the only one commonly available in today's market.

2. The Octave

An octave consists of twelve steps of the chromatic scale. The audio frequency of any note is exactly twice that of the note an octave below and half that of an octave above. Notes separated by octaves sound alike but not identical.

Click for C Octave

3. Diatonic Scales

About 99% of the music played on the chromatic harp is written on the "major", and three types of "minor" scales. They each have eight notes and seven intervals per octave.
Other types of scales exist but are not discussed here.

3.1 Major Scales

The notes in any diatonic scale can be described as I, II, III, IV, V, VI & VII (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th & 7th). The "tonic" or "keynote" is the first note of the diatonic scale. A diatonic scale can begin on any note of the chromatic scale. Where (--) is a wholetone interval and (-) is a halftone interval, the major scale is:


The roman numerals name the notes in the diatonic scale.
For example C Major:


C Major Scale

Click on score to listen to the example.

This section on major scales is an amended version of Vern's original submission - G

3.2 Minor Scales

The distinguishing characteristic of all minor keys is that the third is lowered a halftone. This results in the following layout:


The minor keys differ from one another by whether or not the sixth and seventh notes are lowered a halftone.

The Natural Minor compared to the Major scale has a lowered third, sixth & seventh, giving the scale:


This is the scale that results when the same major-key pattern of intervals is used but the scale begins on the sixth. A major key and the minor beginning on its sixth are said to be "related" (e.g. C-maj and a-min). A major key and the minor resulting from lowering the third is said to be "parallel" (e.g. C-maj and c-min)

For example C Natural Minor:


C Natural Minor Scale

Click on score to listen to the example.

Usually used in Blues, Rock, Country, Reggae & Jazz music.

The Harmonic Minor scale is uses the Natural Minor scale but raises the seventh, giving the scale:


Note the unusual three-halftone interval between Le and Ti.

For example C Harmonic Minor:


C Harmonic Minor Scale

Click on score to listen to the example.

Usually used in Eastern European, Gypsy, Yiddish & Asian music.

The Melodic Minor scale uses the Natural Minor scale raising the sixth & seventh, on the ascending notes only, giving the scale:


but uses the Natural Minor scale as shown above (in reverse) on descending notes only.

For example C Melodic Minor:


C Melodic Minor Scale

Click on score to listen to the example.

Usually used in Classical music.

You will find that music in minor keys consistently employs the lowered third, but the raising & lowering of the sixth and the seventh is at the whim of the composer.

This section on scales is an amended version of Vern's original submission - G

4. Music Reading
For the Chromatic Harmonica

As a general rule, readers use C-tuned chromatics. Learning to read music on this harp is little different from learning to read on any other C instrument.

Click here for a full diagram & music score layout of the 16 hole chromatic harp. (237 KB)
Courtesy of Richard Martin

Except for the first day or two, it is recommended that the student avoid tablature, those non-standard systems that use numbers, arrows, colors, etc. This type of notation is much more difficult to read, especially when speed or complex note timing is involved. Besides that, reading standard notation opens the world's vast music literature to the player, as opposed to the hopelessly limited amount of music in tab form.

5. The Musical Staff

Any music shop has a hundred beginning music books that describe the standard notation, the meanings attached to the shapes of the note symbols, and their locations on the staff. This notation is the same for all instruments. It relates to how the music sounds and not to what you do with the instrument to produce the sounds.

6. Beginning to Read Music

First, we will consider only the "natural" notes of the C-major diatonic scale, C D E F G A B C on a 12 hole harp.

  1. The spaces of the staff are named FACE, bottom to top.
  2. The lines are named EGBDF (every good boy does fine), bottom to top.
  3. The notes above and below the staff continue the same sequence wherein the line or space above is named for the next letter, and A follows G. Vice versa going down.
  4. The note on the first ledger line below the staff is C, hole 1 blow on the harp and middle C on the piano.
  5. Of these, CEG are blow notes and the others are draw.
  6. The 1 2 3 4 holes of each harp octave cover CD EF GA B notes.

6.1 Week One

Using these six simple rules, label all of the notes on some old or copied pieces of sheet music with the note name C D E F G A B, blow/draw, and hole number.
At first go very slowly, consulting the rules as often as necessary. Continue until it becomes so easy that it is unnecessary to consult the rules and is pointless to continue. You are now past the need for tablature because you have been writing it!

6.2 Week Two

Now find some sheet music of simple diatonic tunes in the key of C, (no # or b symbols anywhere.) Pick up your harp and sound the notes using the rules in your head.
You will (particularly if you have played diatonic) find that if you concentrate on blow/draw, the hole numbers will take care of themselves.
Go slowly, taking as much time with each note as is required to get it right... you are not trying to make music yet so don't rush it.
Keep practicing in this mode until (without pushing yourself) it very gradually becomes easier, faster, and sounds musical. You are READING (albeit slowly) on the harp.
Be patient, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Key Signatures

The key signature is a set of # and b symbols that indicate which notes are to be raised or lowered a halftone to produce the diatonic scale of the desired key.

The musical staff (lines EGBDF and spaces FACE) are arranged to represent the diatonic scale in the key of "C". Uneven-interval diatonic scales in keys other than "C" are mapped across the chromatic scale starting at the keynotes. Some of the diatonic notes thus fall on chromatic notes that are not shown on the "natural" staff and are not represented by the unmodified note-names A B C D E F G

Our musical ancestors have solved this problem with the use of the commands sharp/# and flat/b in the key signature. These are "standing orders" to play the diatonic-scale note on that line or space a half-tone higher or lower. If there is to be a natural note played instead, then there will be a natural sign before the note cancelling the key signature sharp or flat to the end of the measure.

Key Signature Chart


















































































6.3 Week Three

Find some sheet music in the "sharp" keys: G D A E.

Whenever a # symbol appears on the same line or space to the left of a note, either in the same measure (called an "accidental") or in the key-signature at the left end of the staff, then PUSH THE BUTTON!

The accidentals are dead easy because the # symbol is right there in the same measure. The key signature must be memorized.

Start with G and work up to E. Most harp players encounter few key signatures involving more than 4 sharps or 4 flats. Really good musicians can play in all of the keys.

6.4 Week Four

Find some sheet music in the "flat" keys, F Bb Eb Ab. Whenever the accidental or key signature indicates a flat (b), play the next lower diatonic note with the button pushed.

To convert a flat (b) note to its enharmonic sharp (#) note by the old rules use this.

Approach these tunes as you did the "sharp" keys. Go very slowly at first and let the faster speed come gradually without consciously trying for it. At this point you are reading chromatic music in all keys.

Nothing can stop you now!

For recommended music pieces to learn check out Douglas Tate's suggestions.

7. Exercises

Before you start a new piece, play the diatonic scale up and down in that key several times. This will make hitting the sharps or flats in the key signature reflexive. I once met a harper who could play fluently by ear in any key on a C chromatic. In response to my question, "How did you learn to do that?," he answered, "Playing scales!"

Starting on every note of the chromatic scale, play an octave's worth of the chromatic scale up and down.


The writer hopes that some of you have found this helpful and are motivated to learn more. Music theory comes in a very thick book that is used for four semesters and adds up to 12 units or more of college work. Naturally, a lot has been omitted from this brief summary.

We wish you well in your musical endeavors!

Now you can continue to the Music Theory II page.

Tablature & Reading Music
By G.

I've had several requests to do a section on tablature for chromatic harmonica, so here it is.

Because this site is targeted at beginner to intermediate players, I've mixed standard music notation with a form of chromatic tablature, purely for making exercises clear to the uninitiated. I strongly recommend following the steps of any other musician, and learn to read and play from standard music notation. With that said...

Tablature's main strength is showing harmonica specific phrases & effects. There is currently very little around for chromatic harmonica tab except for beginner purposes. Harmonica tab has a number of draw backs, such as the lack of timing & dynamics, there is no current standard and other musicians will never understand harmonica tab.
Tablature combined with standard notation is probably the ideal for written harmonica music, what the standard notation doesn't describe can be clarified by the tablature. Sources for this are fairly limited.
Javier has on my request included a Chromatic Harmonica tab option in his program
HARPING! which can load any MIDI song and give harmonica tab for it.
Melody Assistant is inexpensive music writing software, compatable with MIDI, and includes harmonica tablature feature (including chromatic) and readily combines it with standard music notation.
Super Tab by Pat Missin, is a harmonica tablature font compatible with PC and Mac computers. It includes tab fonts for diatonic, chromatic, and even XB-40 haromnicas.
I've also written a short webpage on harmonica tablature at Harp On! Harmonica Resources.

Again, I recommend you learn how to read music notation. The two pages on music theory on this site are a reasonably good primer for chromatic harmonica. Richard Martin has provided an excellent article on the benefits of doing so. There are superb websites to learn how to read music notation. Why not Download Richard Martin's submitted diagram with the harmonica layout against music score for reference.
If you have a different key harmonica than key of C, then go to Chrom Layout and find the layout for your harmonica and make your own chart. It is hard yards. But in the long run, only being able to read harmonica tab makes life harder for you as a musician. Being able to learn a song from a music score & CD is very satisfying, and being able to read music opens up a HUGE world of music to you.

And now for my chromatic harmonica tablature system...

ASCII Harmonica Tablature

I wrote a suggested ASCII music notation that may incorporate harmonica tablature or can stand on its own as a generic music notation including melody, changes & timing:

From: "G"
Date: Thu Jan 24, 2002 11:46 pm
Subject: Suggested ASCII Tablature (harmonica fake charts in ASCII)

----- Original Message -----
From: Winslow Yerxa
Sent: Thursday, January 24, 2002 7:11 AM
Subject: RE: Another "nomenclature" thing (tab)
[regarding standardising Tablature for the harmonica community]
> >Whadya think? Think it's worth trying?
> It is worth trying, and, if memory served, it was tried way back - maybe
> 1993? We more or less agreed on a set of symbols (at least I think we did;
> maybe everyone just expressed their appreication for the ideas). From that
> point, everyone went on making up their own.
> Still, it may be worth trying again.
> Winslow

[G responded]
I know.... how about using Music Score as harmonica tab????!
No? Oh well....

In 1999 I spent considerable time thinking up the following system, although for myself I now prefer standard notation with or without tablature.
I offer to you the harmonica community a suggestion for a standard ASCII fake chart music tablature methodology for harmonica or solo instruments alike.

The basics for harmonica tab we are familiar with:
1 or 1+ blow hole one
1- draw hole one
123+ 123- blow draw chord over holes 123
1'- draw bend hole 1 by a semitone
3'''- draw bend hole 3 by three semitones
8'+ blow bend hole 8 by a semitone

For chromatics I didn't find anything in ASCII tab when I started out (plenty of tab in books, but not ASCII friendly) , so on the Chromatic Harmonica Reference what I have used is:
1^+ blow hole 1, slide in
1+ blow hole 1, slide out
1^- draw hole 1, slide in
1- draw hole 1, slide out

An example...
3+ 6+ 3+ 5+ 6+ 3^+ 3^+
(the start of "Take the A train" on a C chromatic... you have to know the tune to use this)

I've since seen the ^ carot symbol used with regards to overblow/overdraw for diatonic, all well and good?
No, you can overblow & overdraw on a valveless chromatic. Oh well.

So substitute an appropiate character for overblow & slide in. Personally I opted for a little "v" for overblow & overdraw.... make sense with its given nomenclature don't it? eg.
1v+ overblow hole 1.
8v- overdraw hole 8.

I've seen the tilde used in a similar way... 1~+ 8~- .... whatever, as long as we pick one and stick with it.

Mike Will has a good set of tabbing examples on the
Diatonic Reference.

Tabbing effects such as trills, tongue slaps, octave switching, glissing, vamping .... would be helpful for instance. The symbols: ~ ! @ $ % & * \ are all for the taking.
Okay ... thats what everyone expected....

... theres more to go.

What tab really fails at in general is there is no indication of TIME, probably the most important aspect of music.

One way is to follow the notes immediately with:
sb = semibrieve (4 beats)
m = minum (2 beats)
c = crotchet (1 beat)
q = quaver (1/2)
s = semiquaver (1/4)
d = demisemiquaver (1/8)
use fullstop after a duration for a dotted duration (1.5x the duration)
m. = dotted minum (3 beats)

We are missing the rests of course, use R for the "rest note":
Rsb (rest semibrieve)
Rc (rest crotchet)
Rm. (rest dotted minum)
and so forth for Rest durations.

You can mark out the Time signature at the start of a piece
5/8 etc.

So you could play on a C solo chromatic the line:
4/4 Rsb 3+sb Rq 6+c 3+c 5+c 6+q 3^+c. 3^+m Rc ...
(the start of "Take the A train" on a C chromatic)

Then there is an option of NAMING notes rather than the notes of a specific harmonica.
This makes it possible to describe a piece to people regardless of harmonica or layout one is using.
Simply use letters for note names as we are all familiar with:

A B C D E F G, using b for flat and # for sharp obviously.
Note they are in caps. A A# Bb B C C# .... etc
Then with the letters one takes them up an octave for every quote,
and down an octave for every comma. eg.
C' = C above middle C,
C''' = the C found at the top of a C diato or standard Solo C chromatic 12 hole harmonica.
C, = C below middle C like 1+ on a standard Solo C 16 hole chromatic harmonica.

So you could also use:
4/4 Rsb Gsb Rq E'c. Gc C'c E'q Abc. Abm Rc
(the start of "Take the A train" again)

Then to break a music piece up into measures for easier reading, for every measure/bar use:
| | |: | :||: | :|| | || for repeats, bars, end of song ... etc

And you can show 1st time, 2nd time bars for repeated sections simply enough:
... |: | |1st | | :| 2nd | | ...

So far we could use all the above like this:
4/4 | Rsb |: 3+sb | Rq 6+c. 3+c 5+c | 6+q 3^+c. | 3^+m Rc | ....
OR in music tab
4/4 | Rsb |: Gsb | Rq E'c. Gc C'c | E'q Abc. | Abm Rc | ....
(start of "Take the A train")

That in itself gives you a complete tablature system for any melody line. You can describe music to people in text emails who have never heard it enabling them to learn to play it for themselves. WOOHOO! :)

To give a complete fake chart ability, combine all the above with Chord nomenclature, you name the chords at the beginning of each measure for each beat (if applicable).
Use the / symbol to represent beats in a measure to break up the chord nomenclature. The last / symbol marks the start of the tab for that measure.

By doing this you avoid confusion between the chord nomenclature & note nomenclature. Also the other reason is the solo is divided from the chords for each measure.

4/4 | Rsb |: CMaj7//// 3+sb | Rq 6+c. 3+c 5+c | D7b5///// 6+q 3^+c. | 3^+m Rc | ....


4/4 | Rsb |: CMaj7//// Gsb | Rq E'c. Gc C'c | D7b5///// E'q Abc. | Abm Rc | ....
(start of "Take the A train")

Another example where there are changes for every beat in a measure:
4/4 ... |C6/FMaj7/Em7/Am7/ 5+q 2+c. 2+m |CMaj7//// 2+m. | ...


4/4 ... |C6/FMaj7/Em7/Am7/ C'q Ec. Em |CMaj7//// Em. | ...

You now have the makings for an entire ASCII based music notation for fake charts where you can pick or choose to use it like music notation or extended harmonica notation or both. And also choose how much or little detail you wish to include depending on your needs or intention.

Here are the first 18 measures of "Take the A train" in C major on a Solo C chromatic harmonica.

4/4 | Rsb |: CMaj7//// 3+sb | Rq 6+c. 3+c 5+c |
D7b5///// 6+q 3^+c. | 3^+m Rc | Dm7/// 3-sb |
G7//// 3-q 3^-q 4-q 6+q 3+q 2^-q 2-q 5^+q |
CMaj7//// 5+q 2+c. 2+m | 2+m. Rc :| FMaj7////3-q 5+c. 5+m |...

and again as music tab

4/4 | Rsb |: CMaj7//// Gsb | Rq E'c. Gc C'c |
D7b5///// E'q Abc. | Abm Rc | Dm7/// Asb |
G7//// Aq Bbq Bq E'q Gq F#q Fq C#q |
CMaj7//// C'q Ec. Em | Em. Rc :| FMaj7//// Aq C'c. C'm |...

Now we can trade fake books by email!

(c) 2002 Harp On! G.
Only available for free use in exchange of musical ideas, education and distribution of music in ASCII.

NB: ABC written music notation is a formalised generic ASCII musical notation language including timing, melody & chords for any tune, any instrument. You can get software for reading and translating ABC starting at the ABC Home.


Any comments or suggestions can be emailed to

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