[Harp-L] Comb Materials: the Perfect Test Harmonica?

Robert Laughlin harmonicaman1968@xxxxx
Sun May 15 14:53:13 EDT 2016

Donald Trump could step up to provide the 1000 dollars. Otherwise, that 
offer just serves to warn people off, since the parameters are not strictly 
controlled, and therefore the outcome is not assured.

Not everyone has an available G to put up. Most harmonica players, I would 
assume, haven't a lot of money to spend. Otherwise, they might have bought 
themselves a sax, a cello, a piano,,etc. To me, that kind of monetary 
"challenge" just borders on "big talk". It's almost a form of "financial 
bullying", depending on to whom it's addressed.

Personally, I wouldn't risk the money, over questionable parameters, and the 
apparent bias each has for their own view, one "empirically scientific", the 
other "personal/experiential".

Having been involved in music in one form or another all my life, I prefer 
my ears as judges. My ears and I have become good friends, and I trust them 

The aim should not be to "shut up" the opposing view. Perhaps we all have a 
point that's valid to each individual.

No matter how many strict parameters one espouses, there will always be 
something, some "imperfect process"I would guess, to "invalidate" the test.

Personally, I'm siding with the "ears only" crowd, though it might seem less 
"scientific". I trust my ears more than I do other people's "parameters". 
Over control would just remove the element of spontaneity on the part of the 
designated players, I would guess.

To each his own.

I'll go with my ears, over "Machinery's Handbook". I have to live with my 

But then, admittedly, I'm the hippie who wouldn't take engineering in 
college, only because all of "those guys" wore a suit and tie,,,lol.

My father had an engineering degree, worked for Lockheed in the 50's, built 
his own lathe from scrap parts. We had every machine tool imaginable in our 
garage. It was a hippie craftsman's dream. I made "peace symbol" necklaces 
out of twisted wire and brass pieces brazed onto a key ring. Lisa Lyon, the 
world's 1st women's champion body builder got one of these from me. She went 
to my high school. She saw me wearing one, told me she liked it, and I gave 
it to her. Sharing was big, back then. Plus, she was a doll. I couldn't 

Anywayyyy,,, I don't expect a reasonable consensus on this anytime soon. 
Just another day, another issue.

Buffalo Bob

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Vern" <jevern at fea.net>
To: "Tom Halchak" <info at bluemoonharmonicas.com>
Cc: <harp-l at harp-l.org>; "Brendan Power" <bren at brendan-power.com>
Sent: Saturday, May 14, 2016 10:46 PM
Subject: Re: [Harp-L] Comb Materials: the Perfect Test Harmonica?

Thank you for the description of your test design.   I approve of your 
precautions to make certain that comb material was the only difference among 
the harps.  In the following comments, I will explain why I think your 
controls were inadequate to allow listeners to demonstrate the ability to 
distinguish among comb materials by their sound alone.

> On May 14, 2016, at 10:27 AM, Tom Halchak <info at bluemoonharmonicas.com> 
> wrote:

> …..And thank you for your account of the comb test at SPAH 2010.  It is
> unfortunate that in spite of your best efforts the test did not come off
> the way you wanted and failed to provide any meaningful data…….

Granting that the conditions for that test did not satisfy Brendan, some 
conclusions  are inescapable.  Players recorded differences that did not 
agree with the materials or each other.  When someone plays the same exact 
harp three times and perceived differences cannot come from the materials.

> …….it is tragic that one of the participants deliberately sabotaged the 
> test
> and influenced others to perhaps do the same.

He did not sabotage the entire test…only a small part that were his 
responses.  It may not have been sabotage at all.  It may have been that he 
heard no differences and that is what he reported. It is certain that he 
wasn’t happy about the test.   Unfortunately, he isn’t available to clarify 
the question.  I do not to reveal the names of test participants.
> ...there was no attempt to conceal or deceive either the players or the
> audience about the comb material being played …..

There was no deceit in the 3 previous tests.  Deceit is causing someone to 
believe something that is not true.  It was made plain that the listeners or 
players would not know which material was being played.

> …….I solicited the assistance of four very respected professional 
> players…..
Given your goal was to entertain as well as test, this choice is 
understandable. However, machine-blown harps would have eliminated the 
spurious human-player variables.  Such a machine was used for a part of the 
1997 test.  Yes…this discussion has been ongoing for 20 years!  It is 
resurrected periodically when newbies  start asserting again that “wood is 
warm” or “metal is bright”.  This old curmudgeon detects the aroma of BS and 
comes roaring from his den for another round.
> ….. the demand for high quality custom combs is something that was present 
> before Blue Moon came into existence, it is present now, and it will be 
> present when I am dead and gone.
Stability, appearance, resistance to moisture, and other things are all 
valid reasons to  buy custom combs.  My only point is that comb material 
does not affect tone.

>  …...Taking the time to disassemble the harp, clean the reed plates as 
> Michelle Lefree has stated she did, and then reassembling the harp with a 
> different comb had to have
> taken five minutes more or less.  That’s a long time between listening to
> different comb materials with zero opportunity to do a side by side…..

The reassembly was a little over a minute.  However, it took minutes longer 
for each participant to wait his turn at playing it.  They were asked for 
their impressions the sound of the harp presented, not for comparisons with 

The time-consuming use of the same reed plates was adopted in response to 
objections to a previous test that the different reed plates affected the 

You can’t win.  After the test, those disappointed with the results always 
find some  “fatal flaw” in the test conditions.  The claim is: “If not for 
this egregious defect in the test procedure, we would have been able to 
identify the materials from their tones."

Any perceptible difference that doesn’t last even a few minutes is 
irrelevant in the real world of harmonica playing. Harmonicas change from 
song to song, not from second to second.

> At the end of the workshop we had a contest to see who would win “The
> Golden Ear Award”.  Everyone had a score sheet.  One by one each of the 
> pro
> players went behind a curtain out of sight and played each of the
> harmonicas in a random order.

This was an attempt at blinding the test.  However, a serious effort to 
allow the listeners to demonstrate that they could detect materials 
uninfluenced by confirmation bias would require tighter controls.

What were the recorded results?  What was the success rate?  Did the 
listeners tend to agree with each other even if wrong about the material?

Here are some recommended controls:
… The harps should be blown by a machine to avoid human player variables.
… The testers should not comment on which numbered harp is being played.
… The listeners should not discuss or share their perceptions during the 
… There should be more than one harp with each of the comb materials.
… There should be fewer types of materials, maybe just brass and wood.
… There should be a large number of playings, 50 or more.
… The sequence should be random, allowing repetitions of the same harp and 

Before the blinded portion of the test starts, it would be OK to have a 
“get-acquainted” session where harps are played with their comb materials 
known.  It would be OK to record listener’s impressions to compare with the 
results from the blinded test.

There should be someone from your test that would be willing to accept my 
$1000 wager that they cannot distinguish among comb materials under the 
controls listed above. You could provide the harps.  Any takers?


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