Obscure Instruments: Melodica

2 Jul

I played piano for a few years but gave up because I got fed up of practicing. How many ten year olds want to sit stationary for upwards of an hour each day when they could be outside playing? The answer is ‘not many’ and I was certainly no exception to the rule. Next was guitar. I got a lovely acoustic for my fifteenth birthday, the first step towards fulfilling my rock-star fantasy (although since this was the records which inspired me to try my hand at guitar perhaps it would be more appropriate to say ‘folk-star’ fantasy). I found out very quickly that my short fingers meant I wasn’t cut out to be a guitarist.

Perhaps it is a result of my previous failed attempts as musicianship that I’ve recently taken a liking to some of the slightly obscure (and perhaps slightly easier to play) instruments. The melodica is one of these.

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The melodica or ‘blow-organ’ as it is also known, looks like what you’d get it you bred a recorder and a keyboard and sounds like what you’d get if you bred the offspring of the aforementioned instruments with the love-child of a harmonica and a accordion. I first saw this instrument in action at  a gig of a friend’s rocksteady band. I am of the opinion that a melodica player can adopt one of two attitudes while playing; first there is the solemn facial expression worn in an attemept to counteract the somewhat comical sounds of the instrument (this appears to be a popular choice with the crop of indie musicians who are jumping on the melodica band-wagon) and then there are those who embrace the more playful sound and play along themselves.

It was widely used in reggae music during the 1970s and  gradually gained a decent following in popular music. The melodica has featured in the music of artists such as Gang of Four, Belle & Sebastian, New Order and Cake. Apparently Damon Albarn is a big fan of the instrument which shouldn’t be surprising considering his consistent use of it in his virtual band, Gorillaz. Here are my top five tracks which feature the melodica.

  1. Oasis’ ‘Chapmagne Supernova’
  2. Ben Folds’ ”Smoke’
  3. Joy Division’s ‘Closer’
  4. The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’
  5. R.E.M’s ‘Boy in the Well’

I’ll leave you with one final fun fact. Apparently, In the film “The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit“, there is footage of John Lennon playing the introductory notes to Strawberry Fields Forever on a melodica in a hotel room. This footage was fimled in 1964 which was two years before the song was properlly written and three years before it was released

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3 Responses to “Obscure Instruments: Melodica”

  1. Jamie July 2, 2009 at 12:30 PM #

    Hey! I guess I am one of those people who stumbled on your blog randomly. It’s because I googled “melodica blog”, and you happened to write about melodicas um…tomorrow (it’s still only the 1st of July here). Anyway, I just started playing the melodica, and it’s funny because I had the same trajectory through instruments as you. I started off on the piano…couldn’t really get into it as a 10 year old…graduated to acoustic guitar in an attempt to be like um Weezer…embarrassing, but I loved them at the time…and then moved on to the melodica when I had the same realization that my fingers were too short to really be good at guitar. Anyway, just wanted to say hi.
    Oh, also, I was going to tell you about another great song with the melodica is Green Rain by Shugo Tokumaru:

    (the video is creepy, stop-motion…which I also like).

    • lipservicelibrarian July 5, 2009 at 12:36 PM #

      Hey Jamie,

      Don’t be embarrassed by Weezer. They’re were, are and will probably always be an awesome band!

      What sort of melodica do you have? I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about the ones Hohner make and I really like the look of them too. Also, do you play holding it like upright or with the longer mouthpiece and sitting flat?

      • Jamie July 11, 2009 at 12:11 PM #

        I am honestly not sure what kind it is. It’s not Hohner (I know that) and actually it has gone out of tune surprisingly quickly so I am looking around for another one. I found a tutorial on how to tune them but it is ridiculous. So anyway I am looking into Hohner. I play it laying flat but I would like to learn to not be so reliant on seeing my fingers.

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