The Musical Cartography of David Barrett

Picture what your life would be like if you could not read the words you are now reading. It’s hard to imagine, right? Reading words gives you the power to sift through thousands of ideas in a fraction of the time it would take you if you were learning them “by ear”. It’s a life-changing skill that you take for granted.


What if you suddenly lost the ability to read? What would you pay to get it back?


Most harmonica players never experience the value of sight-reading music because the process seems too tiresome and painful to even consider. If you play the blues harp, even thinking about thinking about reading sheet music is probably enough to make you want to go take a nap. I can relate!


The first time I saw David Barrett’s sheet music with harmonica tab years ago my reaction was – get me out of here!


I was a guitar slinging, blues harp playing folk musician. Reading music was for classical musicians, not rebels like me. When I did reluctantly try to read music I felt like I was in kindergarten. Every time I switched keys I had to start all over again. The thought of memorizing all 12 keys of harmonicas and connecting them somehow with 12 different keys of music, dealing with those swarms of sharps and flats in the key signatures, was about as appealing as eating a light bulb and washing it down with a shot of gasoline. All pain, no gain.


I am now 65, learning to sight read on the diatonic harmonica and enjoying the hell out of it. What changed? I finally figured out what David has been up to all these years, and it is a lot easier than I thought it would be. I now see the gain as huge compared to the pain.


What David asks you to do to use his system is this:


  1. Memorize the note layout of a key of C diatonic harmonica in Richter tuning.


  1. Connect playing the notes of this harmonica to the notes you see in sheet music written in the key of C.


  1. When you play other key harmonicas, think in the key of C and pretend you are playing a C harmonica. When you do this, you are using the Key of C harmonica as a model or archetype of the note layouts of all the other harmonicas. One way you can do this is to say to yourself, “If I were playing a C harmonica this would be the G chord” – or something like that.


The breakthrough comes when you really get that the notes on the music staff are also harmonica tab – a code language that tells you what to do to play the note you want to hear. For example, when you see the C note with the ledger line that is just below the staff, it is always blow 1, no matter what key harmonica you are playing.



At first you listen to the music you want to learn and jump back and forth between the sheet music dots and the harmonica tab under the staff while you play your harmonica. As you progress, you spend more time staring at the sheet music and less time jumping down to the harmonica tab.


Eventually you don’t need the harmonica tab except in very rare cases.


You are now feasting your eyes on all the other richness of sheet music like the shape of the dots going up and down, the timing cues, the way silence is represented. David’s system is the kindest, most gentle way to ease into sight-reading that you could hope for if you play the blues harmonica.


This idea of writing music in the key of C to represent the notes on a key of C harmonica is easy to understand if you are playing in first position.


But what happens when you play your archetypal C harp in key of G (second position) or key of D (third position)?


You can settle this issue with a bit of music theory. You can use the notes of the C major scale to create other scales. These other scales are called modes. The usual names for these other scales are Greek words because, hey, why go plain when you can go fancy?


Let’s stick to first, second, and third position on the C harmonica to illustrate the way the C scale system works so well for blues in particular, and most other forms of music.


The Greek name for the C major is the Ionian Mode. That gives you first position. It gives you a straight up plain major scale.


For second position, use the G of the C scale as your root and you get the Mixolydian Mode. This mode is a major scale with the last note a half step lower- the flat 7, which is a blue note.


For third position, use the D of the C scale as your root and you get the Dorian mode. It is a minor scale that has two blue notes in it. The third note of the scale and the seventh note of the scale are both a half step lower than the notes of a major scale, so they are called flat thirds (b3) and flat seven (b7).


When you check out David’s sheet music you will also see a lot of harmonica specific markings that can be intimidating at first. My approach has been to focus first on the notes, and go back later to decode the other markings.


When you can read C scale sheet music, a whole new world opens up to you. If you want to learn a song that is available as sheet music, you now have the option of ordering it transposed to the key of C if you are playing in first position. This is now a common option if you are ordering sheet music as a download product. This gives you a version of instant harmonica tab. I recently got a book of Jazz standards all written out in the key of C.


If you want to play in second position or third position, you would order sheet music in G for second position or D for third position. This would keep your root note in the right place. At this point, you would have to keep in mind the notes in those keys that are sharp.


You just take one step at a time. I have found that since I started working with David’s materials, that decoding normal sheet music in keys other than C is a lot easier than it used to be.


If you have any desire to learn to sight read, you can’t go wrong experimenting with C scale sheet music. David has blazed the trail and made the maps. Learning to read them is a skill that will pay off big time once you hit your stride.




David Barrett:


Richard Sleigh:

1 Comment

  1. don Schmitz

    December 20, 2017 - 2:19 pm

    Hey, Can’t read music other then when I was singing in the choir of my church for 7 years. Moved. Miss the hell out of it. I knew when to go up, when to hold when to sing loud etc. But I can’t say I can read music.
    I am wondering if you have the tabs to Somewhere Over TR as posted on youtube?

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