QUESTION: Which Chinese instrument is accredited with being the inspiration for the modern harmonica?
The American Treasure Tour is, ultimately, a collection of collections. Many fascinating and beautiful and occasionally strange items have been assembled together for the amazement and wonder of our visitors (and, frankly, for our staff, too, as often as not). The one theme the collection always returns to is music. We love to share the automatic music machines with our visitors, but we also proudly display items we don't play and that are meant to be admired. These include record albums and misucal instruments. Among the instruments is the wonderful giant harmonica shown above. Harmonicas are wind instruments familiar to anyone with an appreciation for music. Often compact enough to place in a pocket when not in use (ours being an exception to this statement), harmonicas are easy to travel with and tend to be associated with cowboys, hobos and other people who tend to migrate a lot. Considering the average harmonica tends to be no more than eight inches long, that's pretty realistic. Our harmonica, at just around two feet long, may not be so practical, but it sure is fun!
Tradition has it that the Chinese developed a wind instrument that worked off the basic principle of blowing into pipes of different lengths to create different sounds. This was likely brought to Europe by traders - one speculation has it that Marco Polo himself returned to Venice with one in the 14th century. The first harmonica as we know it dates to the 1820's, likely in the music city of Vienna, Austria. Mouth-blown free-reed instruments such as the harmonica require someone to blow into (or exhale out of) them to make sound. Moving your mouth down the line of holes is what creates the melody. And so musical magic has been heard ever since. Numerous manufacturers of harmonicas emerged in Germany, including Hohner, Seydel and Bushman. It is known that none other than American President Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket, as soldiers in the Civil War also did to kill time during the long miserable days between battles. The Hohner Marine Band harmonica we have on display in our Music Room is over two feet long, and designed not to make music but to draw anxious musicians into a store to purchase the more-practical harmonicas Hohner had been producing since 1857. You may not be able to buy your own giant Hohner harmonica at the American Treasure Tour, but you can come and enjoy ours any Saturday - or reserve a private tour and come on in any time during the week, too!
ANSWER: A) Sheng. Today's sheng looks like a strange collection of pipes of different sizes, creating different notes. When the musician closes a hole in one of the pipes as they blow into-or exhale out of-the instrument, it makes the music. The qinqin is a lute with a wooden neck that is plucked. The Erhu is a two-stringed fiddle, and a yangqin is a hammered dulcimer.