How to Test the Results of Your Harmonica Tuning

By Winslow Yerxa

Test your harmonica tuning either with an electronic tuner or by playing the note together with another note on the harp. If you can, play the note you’re tuning together with the same note an octave higher or lower (you do this by playing tongue-blocked intervals, or splits).

You may hear a quavering when the two notes play together. That quavering is called beating. The faster the beating, the further out of tune the notes are. As the beating slows down, the notes get closer to being in tune.

How do you know whether the note you’re tuning is too low or too high? And how can you be sure that the other note is in tune? That’s where a tuner comes in handy. A chromatic tuner tells you whether any note is sharp or flat (and by how much) relative to a reference pitch. At this point, things start to get complicated for three reasons:

  • The standard reference pitch A440 (middle A vibrating at 440 hertz) is often ignored by both manufacturers and musicians.

  • Harmonicas are often tuned higher than reference pitch to compensate for the fact that a player’s breath pushes the pitch of a note down slightly. You can tune your harps to A442, but some players with strong breath pressure tune as high as A446.

  • Temperament — fine-tuning individual notes up or down relative to the reference pitch — varies according to the preference of manufacturers (and players). Just intonation is a temperament that makes chords play beautifully in tune but makes some scale notes sound out of tune when you play a melody, while equal temperament puts all notes equally (though mildly) out of tune and makes harmonica chords sound harsh.

    Manufacturers and players use a variety of temperaments. If the manufacturer publishes the temperament for your harp (they may call it something like a tuning chart), use that as a reference. Otherwise, either tune to equal temperament or use the chart for Marine Band harmonicas below. (Check out Patmissin.com for detailed information on harmonica temperaments, visit.)

If just one note on the harmonica sounds out of tune, play the same note an octave higher or lower into the tuner and note how much above or below pitch it is. Then play the out-of-tune note.

If it shows up lower or higher than the other notes, you’ll know whether you need to raise or lower the pitch and by approximately how much. The rest of the job is to tune a little and then test a little until it sounds right. For the final result, your ears are more important than the tuner.

After you tune a reed, its pitch continues to change, especially when you tune it up — the pitch will continue to rise. So whenever possible, leave the reeds alone to settle for a few days after you first tune them. Then you can do some touch-ups.

Check out the compromise temperament that Hohner uses for Marine Band harmonicas. You can use this temperament if you don’t have any other information about the temperament of the harp.

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