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An instrument by any other name: Melodica

The melodica is a unique instrument.

It is similar to a harmonica in that it uses a free reed, but airflow is controlled by a keyboard instead of relying only air blown through a mouthpiece. Air can be blown directly into the keyboard apparatus or through a tube but regardless, the player looks a little bit absurd. Overall, it sounds like a harmonica, but the keyboard allows for more control and allows you to play melodies instead of simple chords—hence, melodica.

It’s an absurd, terrible instrument and I bought one this past summer.

The problems with the melodica are many. Unlike a harmonica, it really can’t be played with a solo guitar because it fundamentally lacks volume control. The band has to be large, and you all have to be on the same page—as in, everyone has to be okay with the melodica. Even then, you have to decide: are you going to play a harmony with the chords or are you going to play the tune of the song?

Similarly, you can’t play a melodica alone and sound heartbroken—which, with a little bit of skill, can be done with a harmonica. No one ever sang talking blues with a melodica, and even the most romantic songs lose a little bit (read: all) of their magic when played with one.

It’s a difficult instrument. It’s usually only fun for the person playing it, and what starts out as a fun-ish party trick (pro tip: don’t ever bring a melodica to a party) quickly gets old. Even kids get tired of it.

That said, I like playing the melodica. I bought it because I worked at a place with a strong community of musicians, and though I had a guitar, I quickly realized I wasn’t contributing to the group in that way. I bought it, thinking that given my piano experience it wouldn’t be too tough to learn how to play—and, since it’s only two octaves, it wasn’t.

People were intrigued and entertained at first, but people quickly got tired of humoring me and, no joke, began to leave the room when I brought it out. When I tried to play with groups of guitars, ukuleles and banjos, it was too loud for the quiet songs and, at my low skill level and inability to improvise, it doesn’t work well with louder strumming guitar songs.

Now, my melodica sits alone, unplayed, in my room. When I play anything, it’s the guitar because I worry about what my neighbors would think about my mental health (and their own) if they heard the maybe not-so-dulcet tones of the melodica through their walls.

Here, I make an appeal for the melodica. It’s loud, but it can be played with skill in the right setting, it can work with a band. It can even be fun for at least—or at most—a few minutes alone. I can even take requests (“Piano Man” on the melodica is the best/worst thing ever).

It may be an absurd, terrible instrument, but it deserves respect.


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