The harmonica was developed in Europe in the early part of the 19th century. Free-reed instruments like the Sheng had been fairly common in East Asia since 1100 B.C. The Sheng is a Chinese instrument featuring a bundle of bamboo tubes attached to a curving pipe. The instrument contains a free reed, a strip of flexible metal that flaps up and down when a player blows through its holes creating musical tones.

It became relatively well known in Europe after being introduced by the French Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot (1718–1793), who lived in Qing-era China. Around 1820, free-reed designs began being created in Europe. Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann is often cited as the inventor of the harmonica in 1821, but other inventors developed similar instruments at the same time. In 1829, Charles Wheatstone developed a mouth-organ under the name “Aeolina” (inspired by the Aeolian harp). Mouth-blown free-reed instruments appeared in the United States, South America, the United Kingdom and Europe at roughly the same time. These instruments were made for playing classical music.