General Question

LuckyGuy's avatar

Hey Musicians, does high altitude affect the performance of wind instruments like harmonicas, oboes, clarinets, etc.?

Asked by LuckyGuy (43814points) February 24th, 2022

(I’ve done some searching and don’t see any mention of this effect but I am sure I noticed it. I even posted on a harmonica forum website but got no response.)

I was at a National Park at an altitude of about 7500 ft where the air pressure is about 35% to 40% that of sea level. I began to play my harmonica for fun and to encourage my grandchild to dance around a little.
I noticed the reeds seemed “leaky.” More air seemed to blow by and pass around the reeds without making the usual sound. I needed a greater volume of air to make sound. Of course, the air is less dense and likely has lower viscosity so it makes sense that things would be different but I don’t see any mention of this.

Has anyone here ever noticed this effect with other reeded wind instruments?
Are there special high altitude tunings for performances at high altitudes?

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20 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

There are orchestras that play at altitude in places like Aspen Colorado without problem. One needs a bit more breath, but I would wager it has more to do with the lack of humidity than the density of the air.

elbanditoroso's avatar

The instrument itself should be fine.

The performers (brass, flutes,and wind instruments) may be more winded (no pun intended) since they need to breathe incrementally more to get in the same amount of air to blow into their instrument.

Spectators may notice a different because atmospheric pressure at higher altitudes is not as good a sound carrier as at sea level.

Strauss's avatar

@LuckyGuy The reason the harmonica seemed “leaky”, as you described it, has to do with the “thinner” air at higher altitudes.

The accordion is one of my favorite instruments to play. The reeds of an accordion are very similar to those of a harmonica. (No accident that Hohner for years was the go-to brand for both!)

I noticed that here in Colorado (I’m at about 5300 ft or 1647 m) I needed to work the bellows harder to get a full tone, and even harder if I wanted volume.

Singers also need to adapt to higher altitudes. They usually adapt their phrasing to accommodate more breath needed.

Brian1946's avatar

@Strauss

”(I’m at about 5300 ft)”

You’re Mr. Natural, the Mile-High Musician! ;)

LuckyGuy's avatar

@Strauss That is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping to get.
Do the bellows seem more leaky to you? Does it feel like there is something stuck between the air release key and the bellows hand strap?
(I have a Sorrento from 1960.)

Strauss's avatar

I had an old Hohner squeezebox when I moved here from Georgia in ‘96. I didn’t play it for a few years, and when I finally picked it up ten years later in ‘06, some of the bellows tape had dry rotted. So I was dealing with both altitude and low humidity. After I replaced the bellows tape (I think I saw a YouTube demo) ,I put duct tape on the insides to fortify the bellows tape.

Sounds like you may have a piece of debris along the rod that is activated by the air release, possibly from dry-rotting bellows tape.

@Brian1946…and it’s legal!

kritiper's avatar

I never heard that one and my father was a music teacher.

Strauss's avatar

@kritiper these are issues that are pretty specific to high altitude effects on free reed instruments operated by bellows (accordion, reed organ, harmonium).

Brian1946's avatar

@LuckyGuy

“I was at a National Park at an altitude of about 7500 ft”

The summit of El Capitan in Yosemite is about 7,500 ft. Is that where you were?

Strauss's avatar

The mystic @Brian1946 knows all!

Brian1946's avatar

@Strauss

Thanks. :)

Some people seem to associate the accordion with polka, but I’ve heard it in some rock and pop tunes that I really like, but I can’t remember which ones.
Do you remember some of them?

LuckyGuy's avatar

@Brian1946 Very observant! Actually I was at Big Bear. I see now that it is “only” about 7000 ft. Barometric pressure there is 60–70% of sea level. Still, the reeds in my harmonica don’t lie!
I am down at near sea level again and the harmonica is back to normal.

@Strauss. My Sorento still works perfectly. I only mentioned the air release as an example because that was what the leak sounded like to me.

Strauss's avatar

@Brian1946 I think we can start off with Squeezebox by The Who; When I Paint My Masterpiece, a Bob Dylan song by The Band;
How Can I Be Sure by The Young Rascals;

Then there’s
Tim Brennan from The Dropkick Murphys; Yuri Lemeshev of Gogol Bordelo; to name a few.

Strauss's avatar

@LuckyGuy do you still play it?

LuckyGuy's avatar

@Strauss Yes, I do. To the delight of my grandson – and the chagrin of everyone else. :-)

I can bang out a solid version of Marines’ Hymn at the drop of a hat.

Strauss's avatar

Marches are fun to play. You get to use the “oom-pah”! Just like the polka.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Back in my early teen years I played in a rock band. With one tiny change we were just like the Beatles: we had a drummer, lead guitarist, bass guitarist and a pianist. Fact: A doofus on the accordion is not the same as Paul on the piano. :-)

For fun and relaxation I loved playing a run of ¾ time waltz chords all the way up from the bottom to the top. I could even pretend I was getting exercise.

All my playing was at sea level.

Strauss's avatar

IMHO there are two types of accordion players. Any keyboard player can be an accordion player. But an accordionist actually knows how to play the left hand buttons, including melodies and bass runs.

Strauss's avatar

@Lucky_Guy For fun and relaxation I loved playing a run of ¾ time waltz chords all the way up from the bottom to the top.

If you’re feeling adventurous try adding the corresponding chords with the right hand.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@Strauss That is a great idea! It would certainly force me to learn chords. I could even try inversions.

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