How to Shift Up from the Middle on the Harmonica

By Winslow Yerxa

As you make progress and gain experience playing the harmonica, you will need to become familiar with the shift — the place in Holes 6 and 7 where the breathing sequence changes as you go from the middle register to the high register.

Here’s an important fact to remember about the shift: When you go up the scale from Draw 6, the next note is Draw 7 (instead of Blow 7). It’s easy to forget this shift because this is the first sequence in the scale that goes from one draw note to another.

In Holes 1 through 6, you always go from a draw note to a blow note as you go up the scale. Suddenly, you have to go to a draw note instead. And when you play Draw 6 and Draw 7 together, they create the only discordant combination of neighboring holes on the harmonica — yikes!

The next two tunes are played mostly in the middle register (though “Bunessan” creeps into the high register), but they both use the shift. Before trying these tunes, take some time to get comfortable with the shift by playing this note shift exercise a few times. It simply walks you through the four notes in the scale that approach, travel through, and leave the shift.

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“Bunessan” (“Morning Has Broken”)

“Bunessan” is an old Scottish hymn that came to the attention of the wider world in the early 20th century and, with new words written by Eleanor Farjeon, became famous as “Morning Has Broken.” On the harmonica, it tiptoes into the high register, extending up to Blow 8 from Draw 7, and then floats over the break. Watch “Bunessan” being played to help you along.

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“Joy to the World”

“Joy to the World” helps you get better acquainted with the breath shift in Holes 6 and 7. This traditional Christmas carol unites Isaac Watts’s lyrics from 1719 with Lowell Mason’s 1836 adaptation of a Handel melody known as “Antioch.”

“Joy to the World,” as you can see, starts in Blow 7 and plays the descending scale all the way down to Blow 4 — the complete middle register, including the shift. Then it comes all the way back up before moving around to different parts of the scale. Who knew that playing a scale could sound so glorious?

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