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Is the harmonica the only instrument played by drawing as well as blowing?

A popular trivia question runs something like this: "What is the only instrument that can be played by inhaling?", or "What is the only wind instrument that can be played by sucking as well as blowing?" Naturally, the answer is supposed to be "the harmonica". However, things are not quite that simple...

For a start, not all harmonicas have both blow and draw notes. Most bass harmonicas are blow only, as are some of the Hohner Polyphonia and Chromatica harmonicas (see FFAQ24).

If the answer were "mouth organs", that would be slightly more accurate. Most of the Asian free reed mouth organs (such as the Chinese sheng, hulusheng and lusheng; the Japanese sho; the Thai/Laotian khaen, the Cambodian mbuat; etc.) are played by both exhaling and inhaling.

(From Crude and curious inventions at the Centennial Exhibition, E. H. Knight, 1877)

Some of the simpler Asian free reed instruments (consisting of a reed attached either to a buffalo horn, or section of bamboo, etc.) can also be played by both blowing and drawing. Most free reed pipes (such as the Chinese bawu, Burmese pibat, etc.) usually respond to just one breath direction, although that can sometimes be an inbreath, rather than an outbreath. (For more information about these instruments, go to A Brief History of Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments.)

Moving westward, most of the other free reed mouth blown instruments (such as the melodica family) only respond to blowing. However, there are the various blow accordions:

(From the Ands. Koch A.G. catalog 1914)

As the name suggests, these are accordion-like instruments where the bellows are replaced by the player's lungs. Most of these are played by both blowing and drawing.

Getting away from free reed instruments, but still in the realm of mouth organs, venerable folk musician Sam Hinton has some instruments he calls calliomonicas, or pipe harmonicas.

(Picture courtesy of the late Sam Hinton)

This instrument is featured on his must-have CD Master of the Solo Diatonic Harmonica and was invented by the late Theodore Folsom. As you might guess from their name, these are harmonica-like instruments in which the reeds are replaced with small flue pipes, like a miniature pipe organ. By a very ingenious method, each hole in the mouthpiece is connected to a pair of pipes, one sounded by blowing, the other by drawing. In 1905, Hohner were granted a patent on a similar instrument, but I don't think they were commercially made, nor was the similar device which was patented by Walter Hansell in 1927. In 1908, one Ernst Koch patented a harmonica-like device where blowing and drawing caused small bells to be sounded by hammers (see this page for more details). Several years earlier, Edwin P. Hicks was awarded US Patent #465761 for an intrument in which the player's breath operated small hammers which sounded strings, something he termed a "pneumatic zither".

Sadly, it seems that neither his nor Koch's invention were ever produced for sale. Coming up to more recent times, the Millioniser and other harmonica-inspired synthesiser controllers (see FFAQ27) replace the reeds of the harmonica with electronic sensors to detect blowing and drawing.

Totally unconnected with mouth organs are the recently invented corrugaphones, or corrugahorns. Frank Crawford (Professor of Astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley) is the man given most of the credit for devising these things and as the name implies, they are wind instruments relying on a corrugated tube to produce the tone. These can be played by either inhaling or exhaling through them. Bart Hopkin (editor of Experimental Musical Instruments and author of several books about instrument making) features a version of them on his wonderful CD Instrumentarium Hopkinis.

More traditional is the ki un ki, a wind instrument used by the Udegeys tribe of Siberia. It is a six foot long hollow stalk with no fingering holes, the pitch being altered by lip pressure. The instrument is featured on the CD Darkness and Light by Stephan Micus and is pictured on the cover:

Another traditional inhaled instrument is the trumpet-like nolkin from Chile. I know little else about it, aside from what I read in the article "The Nolkin: A Chilean Sucked Trumpet", by Jens Schneider, published in the 1993 issue of the journal of The Galpin Society. Apaprently, there are other sucked trumpets in Mexico and Paraguay.

Also courtesy of a recent issue of the Galpin Society Journal, I have learned of a Nigerian instrument called the til-boro. This is a unique example of a wind instrument with a single beating reed which is played by both blowing and drawing.

I'm not sure whether they should really be considered musical instruments (although Roland Kirk seemed to feel that they should be), but I have several siren whistles that can be sounded equally well by both blowing and drawing. If we can widen our scope even further and consider people to be musical instruments, human whistling and singing can also be done in both directions.

Finally, there are the various guimbardes (commonly known as Jew's or jaw harps) and mouthbows. Although these are plucked rather than sounded directly by the breath (although on certain harps, some sounds can be produced by blowing or drawing without plucking), they develop their strongest tone when air is being passed around/through them and that can be by either blowing or drawing. One particular form of mouthbow, the goura or lesiba, actually crosses over from being a mouth-resonated chordophone (stringed instrument) to being a mouth-blown chordophone. The string of this instrument is connected to a flat piece of quill which is placed between the players lips, but without touching them. The string is set into motion by both blowing and drawing.

(From The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Volume 32, 1902)


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