A celebration of the melodica

Have you ever wanted to play an amplified trumpet keyboard? In the summer of 2017, I unwrapped my beloved pink melodica that I had impulsively ordered three days earlier from Amazon Prime. What commenced was a beautiful two years of fun, including performances on my best friend senior Xiaoya Gao’s piano recital, gigs with the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) and the New Music Ensemble, a spin at LUaroo and in the water opera “Breathe.” There’s nothing quite like the sound of the melodica. It’s kind of “reedy” like a wind instrument, a little nasally and very present. In the beginning, I was extremely shy about playing it, especially in improvisation groups where I’d just hide away looking for long tones I could hold, but through time I’ve learned to celebrate my instrument’s piercing and boldly present sound. The modern melodica was created by the musical intrument company Hohner in the 1950s and has gained incredible popularity, especially in music education in Asia. In 1966, Steve Reich wrote a piece called “Melodica” that heralded one of the first usages of  the melodica as a serious instrument. One well-known melodica player is the Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal who created a technique of singing and playing the melodica at the same time, thus increasing the harmonic possibilities with the instrument. 

The modern melodica is a fairly accessible instrument. There are a few different types: soprano and alto melodicas, which are the highest pitched and thinnest sounding; tenor melodicas, which are lower pitched and played more typically like a piano on a flat surface with a tubal mouthpiece; and accordinas, which are made of metal and, while played like a melodica, have buttons like an accordion instead of keys. Their range usually spans two or three octaves. They are also very affordable instruments. I bought mine for $30 on Amazon with fancier melodicas retailing for about $100. Melodicas also come in a wide variety of colors and Heid Music in particular sells some really beautiful ones. 

My favorite way to play the melodica is without a mouthpiece and just sticking my mouth right onto the mouthpiece insert hole. I’ve found this is a great way to play with a softer sound and even get some slight vibrato. One can also circular breathe while playing melodica, although this takes a much more advanced melodica player than I! You can also bend pitches. Chords and playing the melodica like a piano is “possible,” although I prefer treating the melodica more like a trumpet and experimenting with single note melodies and colors. 

The biggest reason why everyone should play melodica, though, is that there’s something about the beautiful ridiculousness of the instrument that brings so much joy. In particular, my melodica looks like a toy, but it can make such a nice sound! My roommates, senior Ava Huebner, senior Evie Werger, senior Xiaoya Gao, and I came together to form our living space—the infamous “Melodiquad”—and host frequent “melodijams” celebrating the instrument. Each of our melodicas are different colors and we toot along to pop songs as well as just free jamming and improvising. Every time I pick up the melodica, I am filled with a rush of happiness. As a pianist, it always makes me marvel to see how my breath can connect with sound, which is something I suppose most wind instrumentalists are used to, and I also love experimenting with the tone colors and possibilities this new instrument can create. It might look like a cheap toy, but it also holds worlds of musical opportunity. I would never have guessed, when I first ordered that cheap toy instrument, at all the performances it would bring me to and all the wonderful people I would meet because of it.