Skip to main content

Harmonicas and Arrows

It's not often that my years of messing about with text encoding comes in useful in my life as a harmonica player, but once in a while it happens. The harmonica is one of the many instruments for which traditional music notation doesn't always give you enough information about what to play. Any note on the staff can be played on one and only one key of a piano, for instance, but can be played in any of a dozen or so places on a guitar. So guitarists often use tablature that places numbers on lines representing each string, telling them which string to play and exactly where to fret it.

For harmonica players, the question is usually where the note is on a given harp. Middle C is the 4-blow note on a C diatonic, the 2-draw note on an F, the 4-draw on a Bb, and so on. We use tablature that shows hole numbers, and the direction of breath. There are several ways to show the direction, with the clearest being arrows -- up for a blow note, down for a draw note. Which is a pain in the neck to type, especially on the web. But thanks to the new Macintosh OS's text-substitution abilities, and some arcane Unicode, it's now very quick and easy to type arrows that will show up properly for everyone. Like so:

↑ is the up arrow, and ↓ is the down arrow. If you type those using symbol fonts or arcane keyboard shortcuts, you'll usually get somethign that looks like an arrow on your machine but shows up as other weird characters on web sites or elsewhere. To get an arrow that looks like an arrow on a web page, you need to enter an HTML entity code. The up arrow is ↑ and the down arrow is ↓ That's a lot to type when you want to write down a riff like 2↓ 3↓ 4↑ 4↓ 5↓.

But, on the Mac, open your System Preferences, then choose "Language & Text" and click the Text tab. You'll see the list of all the common substitutions the Mac makes automatically as you type, like turning (c) into ©. Click the + sign at the bottom left to add a new substitution. Enter ^^ for "Replace" and "↑" for "With," and then do it again for "vv" and "↓". Now, every time you type ^^, you'll get an up arrow, and every time you type vv, you'll get a down arrow.