[Harp-L] The "newest" Stradivarius of Harmonicas!

Michelle LeFree mlefree@xxxxx
Sun May 8 06:29:42 EDT 2016

Michael Rubin wrote:

> Vern,
> At the risk of opening up a can of worms, I participated in the comb test
> at SPAH where Tom Halchak had me and many other harp players play the same
> brand of harp with different combs.  I definitely noticed differences in
> tone.  He gifted me with a special comb, I think it was brass and it was a
> favorite harp for a while.  A reed broke and it is somewhere in the
> graveyard, but I should dig it up and put the comb on a stock harp.
> Just my opinion, comb affects tone, if only for the player.  Many audience
> members stated they also heard variety.

Well, Michael, I'm afraid you've stepped in it.

I'm with Vern 100%. Tom Halchak and I disagree and he will defend his 
test vigorously. But unfortunately it simply didn't satisfy basic 
criteria of scientific experimental design. It is an incontrovertible 
fact that any test purporting to show small, qualitative and subjective 
differences in sound quality ~must~ be randomized and double-blinded 
with a statistically significant number of samples or it has to be 
regarded as anecdotal.

I was the official harp sanitizer at Vern and Brendan's 2010 SPAH comb 
experiment. I also spent 35 years doing peer-reviewed medical research 
at major teaching hospitals so I am not new to randomized trials. Over 
the 4-hour marathon experiment I sanitized a single set of reed and 
cover plates between sound samples using numerous comb configurations 
played by half dozen top harmonica players. Same end result as you 
reported -- players claimed they could tell the difference but the 
audience, myself included, simply could not. Some of the players 
actually got angry because they sensed differences that the audience did 
not. It was not a pleasant affair.

I say "claimed" to have heard differences because a player experiences 
many different sensory inputs when s/he plays a harmonica that listener 
cannot. The natural frequency of vibration of the entire harmonica is 
influenced by the comb material. There is little question that metal 
combs can transmit more vibrational energy to the player's hands and 
embouchure than less dense materials. There is a significant amount of 
bone resonance that transmits vibrational energy to the player's ears. 
Whether or not the comb is slotted influences the level and nature of 
the sound heard by the player.

But none of these effects are experienced by a listener.

So, I'm with Vern there as well. If the only demonstrable differences 
between comb materials are experienced by the player but not the 
listener, who cares?

I don't.


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