I got a question from a student recently about how to transpose a melody from 1st position to 2nd position on the harmonica.
Trying to transpose from 1st position to 2nd position is not always possible because of the fact that the harmonica is “missing” some notes. Furthermore, when you are playing in 1st position, say in the key of C, you are playing in a major tonality, and when you are playing in 2nd position in the key of G, you are playing in a mixolydian tonality which is the same as major except that the 7th degree of the scale is a half-step lower.
Now the more techniques you know, the more possible it is to transpose any melody from 1st position to 2nd position, and vice versa. If you can bend with precision you have more options, and if you can do overblows then you have even more options.
My goal here is to give you the basic idea of how I go about transposing from 1st position to 2nd position.
When you’re playing in the key of C, and then you play the same melody in the key of G, you’re going to have to play the melody in a higher register (up a 5th) or in a lower register (down a 4th.) In my example I’m gonna go up to avoid having to do the bends that we have to do in the lower octave of the harmonica to play the otherwise missing notes.
The key to doing this kind of transposition is understanding intervals. INTERVAL means the distance between 2 notes. These are the name of intervals of the major scale on the left and corresponding tabs for 1st position, in the middle octave of the harmonica, which are written in bold on the right:
Major 2nd -4
Major 3rd 5
Perfect 4th -5
Perfect 5th 6
Major 6th -6
Major 7th -7
Now moving on to 2nd position, if we aren’t considering bends and overblows, then we are playing in a G Mixolydian tonality which means we are playing G Major except instead of a major 7th, we are playing a minor 7th, which is a half-step lower.
(A half-step is the smallest interval in Western music and is the distance from any key on a piano to its adjacent key, or from 1 fret to the next fret on a guitar, bass, or uke.)
These are the name of intervals of the Mixolydian mode on the left and corresponding tabs for 2nd position on harmonica in bold on the right.
Major 2nd -6
Major 3rd -7
Perfect 4th 7
Perfect 5th -8
Major 6th 8
Minor 7th -9
Ok, now in the charts above I wrote out the full names of each interval, but going forward in this post I’m just going to spell the number of each interval. So instead of writing “major third” I’m just gonna write “three.” You with me?
Let’s take the first line from the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1st position on harmonica, played:
5 -4 4 -4 5 5 5
So the first question I ask myself is, “What intervals are those?”
Looking at the 1st position chart above I can see that the intervals are:
three two one two three three three
Now that I know the intervals, I can look at the intervals of the 2nd position G Mixolydian chart, and see what tabs correspond to those intervals, and I find the answer is:
-7 -6 6 -6 -7 -7 -7
And presto! I’ve transposed a melody from 1st position to 2nd position. LMK if this helps, and if you have any further questions.
Transposing melodies and licks from one position to another is a GREAT exercise. I do it all the time. It is so much fun!