Why Is a Harmonica Called a Harp When It Doesn’t Have Strings?

By Winslow Yerxa

Both harmonica and harp are borrowed names, and neither one is the only correct name. The harmonica was invented during the Romantic era of Beethoven and Schubert, a time when garden décor included the Aeolian harp, a stringed harp that you set outdoors, where the wind makes the strings vibrate. Even though the harmonica has reeds sounded by a player’s breath instead of strings sounded by the wind, some early harmonica makers referred to their instruments as Aeolian harps by way of poetic association.

Early harmonica makers in German-speaking countries used the term mundharfe (mouth harp). Still others called it mundharmonika (mouth harmonica), borrowing the name of the glass harmonica, which is played with a moistened fingertip rubbed on the rim of a glass. Meanwhile, American books were comparing the harmonica to a harp as early as 1830, and the introduction of a model called the French Harp in the 1880s may have helped to popularize calling it a harp in the American South.