What the Heck is a Harmonica Position? (And WHY do I need to know?)

Different positions create totally different style sounds…

:small_blue_diamond: wanna blues style sound?

:small_blue_diamond: or do you want a folk style sound?

…this is why you should care about position :point_left:

Explaining positions is a minefield but I’m going to take a crack at it here. If any of this goes over your head don’t worry, just absorb what you can and call it a start. Strap in!

In order to understand what the heck is a harmonica position , we really need to understand what the heck is a key . What does it mean if a song is “in the key of C” or a song is “in the key of G?”

IF I were to answer that question with only one sentence it would be: the key of a song is the place of greatest resolution in the song. Resolution is the opposite of tension. It’s the place where you feel the greatest sense of rest. Like coming home.

So, you could find the key of a song using this approach:

:one: listen to the song

:two: turn it off and hum the note that feels like the place of resolution for that song

:three: find the key on the piano that matches the note you are humming

:four: the letter name of that piano key is the name of the key that the song is in.

So what does this have to do with position? The HARMONICA POSITION you are playing is DEFINED by THE KEY OF THE SONG that you are using a given harmonica to play along with.

:small_blue_diamond: On a C harmonica , playing a song in the key of C :arrow_right: 1st position

:small_blue_diamond: On a C harmonica , playing a song in the key of G :arrow_right: 2nd position

1st and 2nd position are by far the most commonly played positions, and they each have different sounds about them. To oversimplify the characterization of the two sounds:

1st Position = FOLKSY

2nd Position = BLUESY

And as you play more and more 1st position you’ll probably notice that your “home base” is on holes 1,4, and 7 (those are the notes named “C.”) And as you play more in 2nd position, you’ll probably notice that your “home base” is on holes -2,3 and 6 (those are the notes named “G.”)

I go over how to choose the right key harmonica to play in 2nd position in my lesson Harmonica Keys for Beginners, and I provide some examples of the difference in sound between the 2 positions in this excerpt.

But wait! There’s more…

There are, of course, more positions: 3rd position on a C harmonica plays in the key of D, and 4th position on a C harmonica plays in the key of A.

If you are already experienced with music theory, and you have familiarity with the modes, 3rd position is a Dorian kind of sound, which is a tonality heard in a lot of Santana’s music. And 4th position is a Natural Minor sound which is characterized as sad, somber, or pensive.

You what?! Luke?!! :confused:

If this is all Greek to you, DON’T WORRY. The take-away here is that when you play your C harmonica, 1st position means you’re playing a song in the key of C, and 2nd position means you’re playing a song in the key of G.

(And if you wanna understand more, you can check out the Music Theory Appendix of Beginner to Boss, which is Module 9, and specifically, check out Lessons 2, 6, 7 and 8.)

It’s important not to get too frustrated if this is as clear as mud at the beginning. That’s normal! It will all become clear in time. Remember: part of the FUN of the musical journey is that there is always more to learn.

Does this way of thinking about positions makes sense to you? Is it helpful or not?

If you have more questions about positions, leave a comment on the forum and let’s keep the conversation going.

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Ok, so I understand what the positions are and I know that if I switch positions on the same harmonica, I would be playing in a different key. But I have some big questions - Do experienced players readily move between positions once they learn a song once (albeit with either a key change or a harmonica change to maintain the original key)? And, if that’s possible, what happens when moving from, say, first position to third or fourth position where they become minor positions? Does the song just become ‘darker’ or does it create problems mapping the notes?

Right now, as a newbie my brain just hurts when I think about trying to move a song from one position to another position. I feel like I would have to track all of relative degrees changes and figure all the notes for the new position- does that become really easy for experience players?

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@KeithH Newbie also but from what I’ve seen experienced players such as Will Wilde switch positions and harps with ease it seems. But I’m guessing it’s not as easy as they make it look.

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I tend to play a song the way I learnt it in the first place. I might have to change the harp key to suit the band/vocalist preferred key, but rarely change the ‘position’.

For learning new songs, I start with the key the band wants to play in and then work through positions to pick the harp. 12 bar (or similar) blues usually means 2nd position, but minor blues might need 3rd position or a natural minor harp in 2nd position. Pops songs (from anytime in the last century or so) might work best in 1st position. I do ‘Danny Boy’ in 12th! I ‘noodle’ with the tune to see what works easiest and sounds best.

If you’re just playing for yourself, play with whatever you’ve got! You only need key and position options if you want to play along with a recording or a band. Bands, particularly vocalists, are prone to change the key they want to play in at short notice. To swap to a different key, I find it much easier to play the same hole/breathing pattern by using a different harmonica in the same position than it is to use the same harmonica and a different position (and therefore a different hole/breathing pattern). So I carry a full range of harmonicas to cope with those last minute changes to an unusual key.

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Hey @KeithH - great question! I agree with everything @Maka says here.

To answer your big question directly:

Do experienced players readily move between positions once they learn a song once (albeit with either a key change or a harmonica change to maintain the original key)?

Typically, you would NOT change position. So if Sonny Boy Williamson played a song in 2nd position, 99% of the time a player who is covering that song will also play it in 2nd position.

Now, as @Maka pointed out, you might changed the KEY of harmonica because a singer needs to raise or lower the key for their vocal range, but you’d simply grab the appropriate harmonica and play the exact same draws and blows on the exact same holes as you originally did when you learned the song. (This is one of the great things about harmonica. It’s so easy to change key…just grab a different harmonica!)

Now OCCASIONALLY (1% of the time or less) someone my change the position, as I mentioned in my Heart of Gold post recently about Willie Nelson’s cover of it in which Mickey Raphael takes the basic idea of what Neil Young played in 1st position and plays it in 2nd position. But again this is the very rare exception to the rule.

Regarding other positions, I think you’re correct in saying that the minor positions of 3rd, 4th, and 5th have a “darker” sound. Bear in mind that probably 90%+ of popular harmonica repertoire is in 1st and 2nd positions.

I think it’s fun to explore other positions, but as a beginner if you’re wanting to get into darker minor tonalities, if it’s not a financial hardship, buying a Lee Oskar Natural Minor is a much easier way to get those sounds then playing in one of the aforementioned positions AND it affords you the ability to play minor CHORDS as well which is a lot of fun.

Does that answer your question?

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Hey @Maka and @Luke
Wouldn’t switching between positions during the same song also change the mode you’re playing in? (ionian in 1st pos. to mixolydian in 2nd pos. if I remember correctly)

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@vibe,
It doesn’t take long to hit the limit of my music theory knowledge! As a struggling harp player with no musical training, in my head (which could be completely wrong) position = mode. The positions have numbers and the modes have fancy names. That’s enough for me!

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haha yeah, the only reason I learned about modes, is because my brother who’s a guitarist and musician had them hanging on his wall :sweat_smile: but I still have to google most things when it comes to music theory

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@vibe So many land mines here, but I’m gonna try my best to respond. The modes in and of themselves can be very confusing at the beginning, and then add in how they apply to the harmonica and can be double confusing lol, but here goes…

First of all, you are 100% correct that 1st position is naturally the major scale (Ionian mode) and 2nd position is naturally the Mixolydian mode. In Beginner to Boss, I go over this in Module 9, Lesson 7.

But I want to try an address your question:

The answer to this question is NO. To explain, lets just talk in terms of a C. IF WE ARE PLAYING ALONG WITH A SONG IN C MAJOR, Switching from 1st position (C Major) to 2nd position (G Mixolydian) doesn’t really change the sound, BECAUSE C MAJOR AND G MIXOLYDIAN HAVE THE EXACT SAME NOTES.
It’s true that we might make different note choices thinking one way versus the other, BUT THE NOTES THEMSELVES ARE IDENTICAL.

By contrast, the modes are most helpful for distinguishing different tonal qualities from a common root. (In music, as in life, context is everything. It’s all relative to the root.)

So the power of hearing the difference between Major (Ionian mode) and the Mixolydian mode is comparing C MAJOR VS. C MIXOLYDIAN.

On the harmonica we accomplish this by. playing 1st position on a C harmonica or second position on an F harmonica. Now we can hear the difference between the sound of major versus the sound of mixolydian.

By contrast, going from C major to G Mixolydian isn’t changing a mode. (Again, it could change our note choice because in our minds we’ve changed the point of reference of where are root is. But our EARS still here the root of the chord progression is C, so it SOUNDS like C MAJOR.) Make sense?

Again context is everything. There are 7 Diatonic modes, and when playing IN THE CONTEXT of a chordal progression in C major, these 7 modes are “enharmonic” (which is the musical term for contacting exactly the same notes - i.e., sound exactly the same:)
C Major (I)
D Dorian (ii)
E Phrygian (iii)
F Lydian (IV)
G Mixolydian (V)
A Aeolian (vi)
B Locrian (vii)

All of these modes are played. from C to C on the white keys, therefore they are enharomonic, and will sound exactly the same in the context of a C Major chord progression.

On the harmonica, each position is up a 5th from the previous position, which is why the Circle of Fifths is a great tool for harmonica players as @EasyEd brought up:

circle-5th

So we can see if C is 1st position, then
2nd position = G
3rd position = D
4th position = A
5th position = E
(and 12th position = F)

So looking back at the order of modes I posted above, and comparing it with the positions we can see, naturally:

2nd position = G Mixolydian
3rd position = D Dorian
4th position = A Aeolian (aka Natural Minor)
5th position = E Phrygian
12th position = F Lydian

It’s possible to alter the sounds of each position through bending (I may be able to make 2nd position sound minor with -3’, or make 4th position sound major with -4’ for example) but NATURALLY the modes listed above are what we’re dealing with, which can be helpful in our exploration of the harmonica.

Since, I’ve come this far, I’m just gonna geek out a little more. :nerd_face::notes:

The power of exploring the modes is comparing the intervals of each, then learning what those intervals sound like, and then being able to identify them in music and quickly learn the music, or know how to improvise along with it in a meaningful way.

The cool thing about exploring the modes through the positions (up a fifth each time) is that ONLY ONE INTERVAL CHANGES each time we change position.

So 1st Position, C Major has all major/perfect intervals: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7

Compared to 1st, 2nd position G Mixolydian, has ONLY ONE DIFFERENT INTERVAL, the 7th degree is lowered a half-step: 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7

Compared to 2nd, 3rd position D Dorian, has ONLY ONE DIFFERENT INTERVAL. The 3rd degree is lowered by a half-step 1,2,b3,4,5,6, b7

Compared to 3rd, 4th position A Aeolian (aka Natural Minor) has ONLY ONE DIFFERENT INTERVAL: the 6th degree is lowered by a half-step: 1,2,b3,4,5,b6, b7

Compared to 4th position, 5th position E Phrgian has ONLY ONE DIFFERNET INTERVAL: the 2nd degree is lowered by a half-step: 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6, b7

That b2 is a very dissonant interval, very Spanish sounding, and so typically when harmonica players play in this position, they would avoid that note (Unless playing Spanish sounding music of course.)

Might as well finish strong here and make this comprehensive, lol. These 5 positions are all on the right side of the circle of fifths, and each one flats one more interval. These are the “most commonly” played positions (each less commonly played than the one before.)

By contrast, 12th Position is on the LEFT side of the Circle of 5ths, one slot from C, and guess what? Lydian has ONLY ONE INTERVAL DIFFERENT from the major scale: the 4th degree is raised by a half-step. So the intervals are 1,2,3,#4, 5, 6, 7

The only other position I’ve heard of people playing in is 11th position, which as you can see on the circle of fifths is Bb on a C harmonica. Bb is not naturally in the key of C major, so there is no mode corresponding to it for the purposes of this discussion;

And that, my friend @Vibe, I’m guessing is probably waaaaay more than you ever wanted to know about positions and the modes (if you’re even still reading this!) :joy:

Thanks for the great question. Keep 'em coming!

Aloha,
Luke

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Superb explanation @Luke! :smiley: :+1:

It makes a lot of sense. I vaguely remembered the name of the modes, but I never never really thought the thought that they had relation to each other, but it makes sense, when I think of a piano layout (the pictures my brother had would show the pianos for each mode and they were all white keys)

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Hello @Vibe,
take the trouble and look at Module 9, Lesson 7 as suggested by @Luke.
I also just wanted to play and progress, without music theory. At some point I was at the point to understand that it doesn’t work without it.
The time you invest now will save you later.
Greetings from Astrid :woman_in_lotus_position:

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Good call Astrid @AstridHandbikebee63 I should do that :slight_smile:
And I agree one cannot go without the other.

(a side note, I’m actually moving countries in the near future, and I’m going to be living in a small apartment with my boyfriend, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do the practical part of the harmonica, but in the meantime I can invest more time in the theoretical part of music)

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How many time zones (if any) are you changing, @Vibe ?

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Just one to the east :slight_smile: I’m going from Denmark to Finland, although I don’t know when exactly, but within a year (if anyone’s interested in knowing more I can talk about it in Lounge as to not hijack this thread)

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Thank you and @Maka , this answers my question!

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