Two and two are four, four and four are eight

When was the last time you blew out the candles on a birthday cake, or used a straw to blow bubbles through a drink? Well, here’s some top secret information. Both these actions require breath control, something that is really important for playing harmonica.

Listen to

Some of us can blow out all our birthday candles with one long blow. Others take shorter puffs and blow the candles out one by one. With a straw, some of us take short sips, while others drain their glass in one go. In each case, the time we take blowing or sipping is called duration. Here’s Stretch the Snake to help us find out more about this important musical element.

Listen to

Eight and eight are sixteen, sixteen and sixteen are thirty two
Every song is built with long notes, short notes and rests (silence). Together, these create the rhythms and phrases in our music. When it comes to writing the notes down, harmonica players often use tabs. Tabs are a quick way of remembering what to do. They tell us which holes to play and whether to blow or draw.

There are many different styles of harmonica tabs, and at Harp Academy we use Arrow Tabs. Tabs are very useful, but the problem with them all is they don’t tell us how long to play each note. This is why we often add song lyrics to our tab; the words help us memorise the phrasing and duration of the notes so we can play them more accurately. But what if a tune has no lyrics?

Inch worm, Inch worm, measuring the marigolds
We could listen to someone playing the tune a few times and copy them. Folk musicians have been doing this for centuries and this process is part of what musicians call ‘ear training’. In some cultures, tribal history, songs and legends are memorised and passed down from generation to generation in exactly this way. But what if some important details are forgotten and not passed on? Is there a way of capturing everything without actually recording it? Let’s read on.

You and your arithmetic, you’ll probably go far
For thousands of years, humans have used alphabets and symbols to store their ideas and information for future use. But it’s only very recently that musicians have found a common system for doing the same thing. The written music we use today is called standard notation. It’s the familiar arrangement of lines and spaces, which provides a ladder for notes to climb up and down. Standard notation uses:

Mathematics – telling us how long to hold notes or rests, and the number of beats in each bar
Physics – telling us how high or low, fast or slowly, and loudly or softly to play
Art – by telling us how to express emotion, accent our notes and set moods through our phrasing

Seems to me you’d stop and see how beautiful they are
Standard notation is the universal system for writing music; as musicians we should learn to use it. A good place to start is by recognising the note symbols that tell us how long to hold our notes. We can then work on the symbols that tell us how long to rest. These are called note and rest values. Here is a list of the most common notes we use:

Semibreve (Whole Note)

1 beat to a bar

Listen to

Minim (Half Note)

2 beats to a bar

Listen to

Crotchet (Quarter Note)

4 beats to a bar

Listen to

Quaver (Eighth Note)

8 beats to a bar

Listen to

Semiquaver (Sixteenth Note)

16 beats to a bar

Listen to

Give it a rest
The symbols beside each note above represent that note’s rest value. If we take a crotchet (quarter note) as our example, its wavy rest symbol tells not to play for the duration of a crotchet (quarter note).

Listen to

While a beat pulses steadily throughout a piece of music, like a clock or metronome ticking underneath, the combination of notes and rests create a rhythm across the top. As an example, when we sing Twinkle, Twinkle and clap along, each clap represents a beat, while the words represent the rhythm. Try this for yourself: speak or sing the words below and clap where you see the red print:

Twinkle, Twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
Twinkle, Twinkle, little star
How I wonder what you are

To play this on the harmonica we can run the words in our head to help decide how long or short to play each note. Once we learn to read music, we can use notation to do the same thing.

Doing the maths
Once we understand the note values above, it’s time to consider one last thing. Suppose we had to hold a note for three beats. How could we indicate this when we don’t actually have a note symbol for three beats? The symbols we have learnt only represent binary numbers.

The answer is we would use a minim (or half note) symbol and add a dot beside it. We know a minim last two beats. A dot tells us to add on half this note value. For a minim therefore, the maths is 2 beats (minim) + 1 beat (dot) = 3 beats (new note value).

Check the table here to see if you can work out the note values for a dotted semibreve (whole note), dotted crotchet (quarter note), and dotted quaver (eighth note).

Duration – Worksheet 1
Duration – Worksheet 2