An Observation: Musical Keys

I believe that everyone needs to have at least a basic knowledge of musical language and terminology…just as a matter of being informed individuals.

If you work someplace that sells instruments–even just as a side item–it becomes pretty important to your job.

Do I expect everyone to know complex music theory concepts? No. You don’t have to be an expert like this guy…

This story is a small example of a time when the universal language of music didn’t seem quite so universal.

When my brother was in high school, he had begun to show a tremendous aptitude for playing whatever musical instrument you put in his hands. During my senior year and his junior year, we were performing a marching band show in which he would be playing a trumpet solo. However, in the original tune that we were covering, the solo was performed on a harmonica.

After speaking with our band director, he decided to give the harmonica solo a try. They weren’t sure whether or not it would achieve the intended effect (ultimately, it was too quiet to project well enough in a football stadium), but it was worth giving a new instrument a shot.

Not all harmonicas are created equal. While my knowledge of the instrument is limited to a mild mid-90s obsession with all things Blues Traveler, I do know that harmonicas are built in different keys, much like other instruments. My brother needed to find a harmonica in a very specific key for this solo. So, one Saturday, the whole family headed out of town to visit a music store in search of a D-flat harmonica.

(D-flat is important to my point here, so pay attention.)

We ended up in a relatively small store in a relatively small town that sold relatively unrelated items. The glass counter near the cash register just happened to contain several harmonicas.

“Can I help you?”

The salesman had long gray hair pulled back into a pony tail. He was wearing a blue t-shirt and jeans full of holes. He certainly looked like a rock musician–someone you could talk to about things like chord changes and key signatures–so we didn’t think this was going to be a difficult transaction.

“Yes,” my mom said. “He’s looking for a D-flat harmonica.”

My brother was already engrossed in scanning through the glass case, trying to find it himself.

“Umm…wow. I don’t usually hear that much. Umm…let me look through what we’ve got.”

The salesman opened the case from his side and started looking at labels on the side of the cases. He picked up several, looking confused.

“Ma’am, I don’t have anything like what you’re talking about. The letters on the side don’t match what you’re saying.”

“Oh, so you don’t have a D-flat?”

“Well…I have a D-B.”


My brother started to get that look on his face…a mixture of disbelief, shock, and “well, at least they do have what I’m looking for even if they don’t know it.”

Mom spoke before he could.

“Can we see that one?”

He handed it to her.

The label said it all–Db.

“Yes, that’s a D-flat. That’s what we’re looking for,” she said.

“You said D-flat. This is a D-B. Are you sure?”

My brother sighed, then spoke up.

“Yes, sure, we’ll take the D-B.”

There’s a lesson to be learned from everything.

Here’s a short lesson from this interaction (in case you ever find yourself in such a situation):

1. A flat sign looks a lot like a lowercase “b.”
2. Should a sharp sign also become part of the conversation, it looks like what those of us who once used a rotary or touch-tone phone referred to as a pound sign, and what today’s youngsters only know as a hashtag. (See also: #SharpSign)
3. That D-B harmonica ended up sounding remarkably like a D-flat harmonica.

This sounds remarkably like a mess. Don't try it at home.
This? This is a C piccolo with a trumpet mouthpiece. It sounds remarkably like a mess. Don’t try it at home.

I relay this story not to insult anyone, but merely to educate the uninitiated. So, before you start looking for videos online to learn how to play that F-hashtag chord on your new guitar, take a moment to brush up on the basics.

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