How to Articulate Notes on the Harmonica with Your Throat

By Winslow Yerxa

You can articulate notes on the harmonica with your throat. Your throat is positioned in the gateway between your lungs in the lower part of the air column and your mouth in the upper part. Your throat can couple with both parts to influence the harmonica’s sound.

The throat does its work with the glottis, which is the opening between your vocal cords. (Note that vocal cords aren’t actually cords but folds of tissue.) For instance, if you try to cough politely without disturbing the person next to you on the bus or in a movie theater, you’re closing and opening your glottis while exhaling.

To experience what using your glottis feels like, try saying, “Uh!-Uh” (as in “no way”). Now whisper “Uh!-Uh” without using your voice. To heighten the sensation, keep your throat open as if you’re yawning. Notice that your glottis closes twice, at the beginning and the end of the first “Uh.” When you stop the airflow with your glottis, you’ve produced a sound called a glottal stop.

An exclamation mark (!) is used to indicate a glottal stop.

On the harmonica, try starting a long note with a glottal stop. For example, try “!Aaaaaaaaaahh” while both inhaling and exhaling. At first it may seem like the note starts very loudly with the glottal stop. Try breathing fully to make the note strong but relaxed, and make the glottal stop as mild as possible so it doesn’t overpower the rest of the note.

You can also practice starting and stopping on the harmonica by doing a series of glottal stops as you play a long note, both inhaling and exhaling. For instance, you may try “!Aa!Aa!Aa!Aa.” This should sound like a series of repeated, connected notes.

Now try starting and stopping a note with a glottal stop. Without the harp, the note will sound like “!Uh! !Uh! !Uh!” When you use articulation to end a note you’re doing a cutoff. You can use your tongue for cutoffs, but glottal articulation is more subtle.

Play a long inhaled or exhaled breath and try breaking it up into a series of shorter notes. Start each note with a glottal stop and then cut it off and interrupt the breath flow. Then start again and continue the longer breath.

Try playing the throat articulations again, attacking and cutting off each note with a glottal stop. When you play a note for the briefest possible moment with a sharp attack and cutoff, it’s called a staccato note.