How to Prepare for Bending Notes on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

Bending notes on the harmonica happens in the dark recesses of your mouth with the harp blocking the view, so seeing it requires something less intrusive than flashlights and mirrors. However, you can get an idea of what’s going on inside your mouth by doing some simple explorations with your tongue and then you can try out some breathing and vocal noises to get you started on the bending path.

Fortunately, the scientific literature on note bending continues to grow. Robert Johnston’s 1987 article “Pitch Control in Harmonica Playing” in Acoustics Australia was followed by the use of ultrasound and X-ray fluoroscopy by physicians Hank Bahnson and Jim Antaki and most recently by MRI images made by David Barrett with a team of Stanford scientists, which you can see on David Barrett’s YouTube channel.

You can find several additional papers by searching the archives of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Exploring the roof of your mouth

Try touching the tip of your tongue to the back of your upper front teeth. Then slide it back along the roof of your mouth so that you can feel the contour of the roof.

[Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith]

Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith

When you bend notes, you usually raise some part of your tongue to a place along that contour. Extremely low-pitched notes may bend by raising your tongue somewhere in the backyard, while extremely high notes may bend somewhere in the vicinity of the dome or even on the front porch.

By using your tongue this way, you can tune your mouth to different notes by changing the size of your oral cavity, the enclosed space inside your mouth, something like this:

  • Tongue raised back in the mouth = big space = low note

  • Tongue raised forward in the mouth = small space = high note

Making some helpful noises

Just moving your tongue forward or back in your mouth won’t bend a note until you activate the bend.

By the way, check here to see these harmonica note bending exercises.

Try this: Say “eee-ooh” and notice what your lips are doing.

  • When you say “eee,” you pull your lips far apart to make a wide mouth opening.

  • When you say “ooh,” you bring the corners of your lips close together to make a small, round opening.

Form your mouth to say “ooh,” but then you’ll make the sound of “eee” come out instead. After you get the “eee” sound, you’ll be guided into making some additional sounds. Here’s what you do:

  1. Form your lips into a rounded shape to make the sound of “ooh.”

  2. Place the tip of your tongue just behind your front teeth and just below the roof of your mouth, hovering below the front porch.

  3. When you have your tongue in place, try singing a sustained note with the sound of “eee.”

    You may need to work on placing your tongue and keeping your lips formed into a small “O” shape, but it will probably be fairly easy.

  4. Now continue singing the note and slide your tongue back in your mouth, keeping it raised so it stays near the roof.

    As you slide your tongue back, you should hear the “eee” change to “ooh.”

  5. When you get to the place where you hear the sound of “ooh,” keep your tongue in that spot and sing “koo, koo, koo” a few times (no, this doesn’t have any secret meaning, unless you count unlocking the secret of bending).

    Notice what your tongue is doing. It rises to touch the roof of your mouth and momentarily blocks the airflow. You hear the “k” sound when you release the airflow by lowering your tongue slightly. This action of saying “k” is the beginning of knowing how to activate a bend.

Creating your bend activator with the K-spot

Now you’re going to do everything that you just did, but with two changes:

  • You’ll whisper instead of using your voice.

  • You’ll inhale instead of exhaling.

When you slide your tongue back as you inhale, you can hear the air moving in your oral cavity. As you move from the “eee” sound to the “ooh” sound, you can hear the vowels change in the sound of the airflow, but you can also hear the pitch go down as you move to “ooh” — you’re tuning your mouth to a lower note!

When you get to the “ooh” sound, try sounding “ookookookoo” in one continuous breath and notice that each time you stop the airflow, you feel a slight amount of suction pulling on your throat and your upper rib cage.

At this point, concentrate on making the “koo” sound very slowly.

  1. As you inhale and whisper the “koo” sound, remove your tongue very gradually from the roof of your mouth, so that at first the air can’t move freely.

    Your tongue will feel like it’s trying to escape the gravity of the roof of your mouth because suction is trying to pull them back together.

  2. Try to keep your tongue positioned so that you continue to feel suction as you inhale air through the narrowed passage between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.

    You activate bends with this narrowed spot in the airflow.

You can see roughly what the K-spot looks like from the front here.

[Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born]

Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born

And this is what the k spot looks like from the side.

[Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith]

Credit: Illustration by Rashell Smith