The Mental Model – “Visualising” Your Harmonica

A few weeks ago one of my students shared a tip he’d been using to help him read and memorise licks. Norm lives in Western Australia and during his retirement, he’s fulfilling a lifelong goal of learning to play blues harmonica. Here he is during one of our Zoom sessions. Hi Norm!

Screenshot of Norm and Kevin during a Zoom harmonica lesson.
Norm blowing away like a champ during one of our Zoom sessions.

Norm told me he’d started using different coloured highlighter pens to mark different holes in the tab he was using.  This is a great idea, lots of people find colours much easier to identify than little numbers and symbols.

This got me thinking. Highlighting the tab is fine, but you need to leave the tab behind at some point and we can go a lot further in visualising the harmonica.

The Mental Model

In simple terms, the mental model is what the musician sees in their head while they play. How they visualise the notes they are playing. Mental models are useful for players of any instrument, but especially so with harmonica because we can’t even see the instrument as we’re playing.

Lee Sankey has researched extensively on this subject and interviewed dozens of top tier musicians. The term he uses is Brainstruments. The picture below is a great illustration of what Lee’s brain is doing as he plays (I hope he doesn’t mind me using the image).

Some players have spoken about seeing the keys of a piano keyboard as they play. Especially if they’ve come to harmonica after already learning another instrument and music theory.

I must admit that my own mental model is somewhat fragmented and indistinct. In fact, doing some serious work on this is high on my (long and getting longer) to-do list.

There are some shapes that I see very clearly. For example, in the major scale in the middle register, I see a kind of zigzag line with “U” shape where the pattern changes for the 6+, 6, 7, 7+. Something like this.

Zig-Zag and U visualisation

Similarly, I see a kind of elongated U shape for the 2nd position major pentatonic scale going from the six blow to nine blow.

Major Pentatonic in the upper octave “U” visualisation

Down around the 1-4 hole area, I often have a feeling/vague image of a ball bouncing around, to different heights as I play with all the juicy draw bends in that range.

“Bouncing ball” visualisation

In addition to the shapes the scales and breath patterns make, I also have a visualisation of my breathing. I find this helps to remind me to keep all my muscles as relaxed as possible and breathe gently.  I imagine that there is a warm, round, unhindered column of coloured smoke coming from my diaphragm and out into the air in front of me, almost as if the harmonica itself wasn’t even there. It’s smooth, relaxed and slow, and really pretty to look at. For the inhales I imagine the same thing in reverse as if I’m slowly bringing all that smoke back where it came from.

So how do you go about developing your own mental model? The real – though not terribly useful – answer is “however you want”. Everyone’s going to have their own personal version, unique to them. That said, here are a few ideas to get you thinking about it.

Start with the harmonica itself

It’s likely you’ll probably want to start with some way of visualising the harp itself. For me, I’m so used to looking at and thinking about diagrams similar to the one below, that’s most natural for me. Boring for sure but i find it helpful. I imagine the various squares lighting up as I play – especially the bends. Feel free to download this image if you think it will help you.

Diagram of a C diatonic harmonica showing all available notes including bends
Simple 2D harmonica diagram

But it needn’t be something so literal. In Lee Sankey’s model above the harmonica itself is fairly abstract, and it’s cool. If your inclination is to go for something like that, then go for it.

“Seeing” the shapes and patterns

This is how your visualisation looks to you. Maybe you could draw some inspiration for other skills or interests you have. Maybe you paint or draw and like thinking in terms of colours or shapes. Maybe you play the guitar and are used to thinking in terms of guitar tab. Could you utilise that somehow? I know that when I was learning basic music theory the mental image of a guitar fretboard was very useful to me.

Colours are very useful. You might decide that all your flat-5ths are blue, for example. Or that the bends on the three-hole draw get darker as they get lower in pitch.

Take it Easy

This is not something you need to have fully formed right away. You may find that your visualisation develops slowly, and changes over time. That’s all good, it’s highly personal.


That’s a quick run-through of the concept. I hope it gives you some inspiration and starts you off on your own journey. I’d love to hear about your mental model if you’d like to share.

One last thing. A hidden benefit of having a good mental model is that by using your imagination you can “play” without even needing to have a harmonica with you. This is especially useful for memorising and “rehearsing” licks and scale patterns.