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Jew's harp
A modern Jew's harp
A metal Jew's harp (demir-khomus) from Tuva

The Jew's harp, jaw harp, mouth harp, or Ozark harp, trump and juice harp, is thought to be one of the oldest musical instruments in the world;[1] a musician apparently playing it can be seen in a Chinese drawing from the 4th century BC.[2] Despite its common English name, and the sometimes used Jew's trump, it has no particular connection with the Jewish people or Judaism. This instrument is native to Asia and used in all tribes of Turkish people in Asia where it is variously referred to as a temir komuz, agiz komuzu or gubuz.

The instrument is known in many different cultures by many different names. The common English name "Jew's Harp" is controversial and is avoided by many speakers. Another name used to identify the instrument, especially in scholarly literature, is the older English trump, while guimbarde, derived from the French word for the instrument, can be found in unabridged dictionaries and is featured in recent revival efforts.

The instrument is a lamellophone, which is in the category of plucked idiophones: it consists of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue or reed attached to a frame. The tongue/reed is placed in the performer's mouth and plucked with the finger to produce a note. The frame is held firmly against the performer's parted front teeth, using the jaw (thus "jaw harp") and mouth as a resonator, greatly increasing the volume of the instrument. The teeth must be parted sufficiently for the reed to vibrate freely ,and the fleshy parts of the mouth should not come into contact with the reed to prevent damping of the vibrations. The note thus produced is constant in pitch, though by changing the shape of his or her mouth and the amount of air contained in it (and in some traditions closing the glottis) the performer can cause different overtones to sound and thus create melodies. The volume of the note can be varied by breathing in and out.

Since trances are facilitated by droning sounds,[3] the Jew's harp has been associated with magic and has been a common instrument in shamanic rituals.[4]



There are many theories for the origin of the name Jew's harp. One proposed explanation is that it is a corruption of "jaw harp", while a less likely explanation espoused by some is that its name comes from "juice harp" from the amount of saliva produced when played by inexperienced players. Both of these explanations lack historical backing, as both the "jaw" and the "juice" variants appeared only in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It has also been suggested that the name derives from the French "Jeu-trompe" meaning "toy-trumpet".[5]

The Oxford English Dictionary calls theories that the name is a corruption of "jaws" or "jeu" "baseless and inept" and goes on to say, "More or less satisfactory reasons may be conjectured: e.g. that the instrument was actually made, sold, or sent to England by Jews, or supposed to be so; or that it was attributed to them, as a good commercial name, suggesting the trumps and harps mentioned in the Bible."[6]



In traditional music

The Jew's harp is an integral element in the music of Tuva. Known as the khomuz, the instrument is used to play the same overtone melodies used in the khoomei, sygyt, and kargyraa styles of overtone singing. The instrument is also a traditional part of Alpine musical styles, from Hungary to France. The earliest trouve in Europe is a bronze-harp dating 5th to 8th century.

In Norwegian traditional music

The Mouth harp (or munnharpe) is also strong in Norwegian traditional music. It is more melody based than rhythm/effects. The overtone is not only pitched with the shape of the mouth but also further back in the throat by using an opening and closing of the glottis technique. With this technique the Norwegian players can play almost all the traditional fiddle/hardanger fiddle tunes. The oldest archeological mouth harp discoveries in Norway date back to around 1200. The reason why older instruments haven't been found could be because the Norwegian Mouth harp, unlike other places around the world (except some discoveries in the Benelux countries), is made in a way that makes it possible to replace the reed if it were to be broken.

In classical music

Around 1765, Beethoven's teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger composed at least seven concerti for Jew's harp, mandora, and strings (three survive in a library in Budapest). They are pleasant, well written works in the galant style, interpreting melodies of contemporary Austrian folk songs.

The American composer Charles Ives's Holidays Symphony features a brief solo for Jew's harp in the first movement ('Washington's Birthday').

In Indian classical music

In Carnatic music, the instrument is often used for percussion accompaniment. This instrument is commonly known as a "moorsing" or "morsing" in India.

Satyajit Ray has used a taniyaavartanam that uses this and other percussion instruments in his movie Gopi Gayen Bhaga Bayen.

In Sindhi Music

In Sindhi the Jaw harp is called Changu (چنگُ). In Sindhi music, it can be an accompaniment or the main instrument. One of the most famous players is Amir Bux Ruunjho. Sindhi Changu by Amir Bux Ruunjho[7]

In World Music

The Jew's harp is frequently to be found in the repertoire of music played by alternative or world music bands. Sandy Miller of the UK-based Brazilian samba/funk band Tempo Novo, plays a Jew's harp solo in the piece Canto de Ossanha.[8]

In Vietnamese Music

Đàn_môi ((Vietnamese): Đàn môi) is the Vietnamese name of a traditional musical instrument widely used in minority ethnic groups in Vietnam. This instrument is somewhat similar to Jew's harp but there are some differences.

In popular music

The Jew's harp has been used on occasion in rock and pop music. It is also used occasionally in folk, country and bluegrass music. It can be heard, sometimes barely audible in the background, throughout the Leonard Cohen album Songs from a Room. It was brought to the attention of the masses when used during the intro of the song "Join Together" when played by Roger Daltrey of The Who. It also featured in the intro of Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory" from the album Young Guns II, and throughout the Red Hot Chili Peppers song "Give It Away" (in the album liner notes for the latter, the instrument is referred to as a "Juice Harp"). Lungfish singer, Daniel Higgs released the album Magic Alphabet in 2003 composed of 17 solo Jew's harp pieces. Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good" has a Morley voice box solo that is often mistaken for a Jews harp. It was used in the song "The Guns of Brixton" by The Clash, from their London Calling album. It features prominently on the song "Lion in a Coma" by Animal Collective, from their album Merriweather Post Pavillion. The instrument is also featured prominently in "Chicken Train" by Ozark Mountain Daredevils. John Lennon played a Jew's harp on the song The Fool on the Hill by the Beatles.

A Jew's harp, played by Michal Wright (UK), has been used in the lullaby Twinkle Twinkle Little Star that was recorded as part of a European Union funded language education project within the Socrates programme. A video recording of the song can be heard on YouTube Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

In film music

In the 1972 movie Snoopy Come Home Snoopy plays this instrument.

See also

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  • Alekseev, Ivan, and E. I. [i.e. Egor Innokent'evich] Okoneshnikov (1988). Iskusstvo igry na iakutskom khomuse. IAkutsk: Akademiia nauk SSSR, Sibirskoe otd-nie, IAkutskii filial, In-t iazyka, lit-ry i istorii.
  • Bakx, Phons (1992). De gedachtenverdrijver: de historie van de mondharp. Hadewijch wereldmuziek. Antwerpen: Hadewijch. ISBN 9052401632.
  • Boone, Hubert, and René de Maeyer (1986). De Mondtrom. Volksmuziekinstrumenten in Belgie en in Nederland. Brussel: La Renaissance du Livre.
  • Crane, Frederick (1982). "Jew's (jaw's? jeu? jeugd? gewgaw? juice?) harp." In: Vierundzwanzigsteljahrschrift der Internationalen Maultrommelvirtuosengenossenschaft, vol. 1 (1982). With: "The Jew's Harp in Colonial America," by Brian L. Mihura.
  • Crane, Frederick (2003). A History of the Trump in Pictures: Europe and America. A special supplement to Vierundzwanzigsteljahrsschrift der Internationalen Maultrommelvirtuosengenossenschaft. Mount Pleasant, Iowa: [Frederick Crane].[1]
  • Dournon-Taurelle, Geneviève, and John Wright (1978). Les Guimbardes du Musée de l'homme. Preface by Gilbert Rouget. Published by the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle and l'Institut d'ethnologie.
  • Emsheimer, Ernst (1941). "Uber das Vorkommen und die Anwendungsart der Maultrommel in Sibirien und Zentralasien." Ethnos (Stockholm), nos 3-4 (1941).
  • Emsheimer, Ernst (1964). "Maultrommeln in Sibierien und Zentralasien." In Studia ethnomusicologica eurasiatica (Stockholm: Musikhistoriska museet, pp. 13–27).
  • Fox, Leonard (1984). The Jew's Harp: A Comprehensive Anthology. Selected, edited, and translated by Leonard Fox. Charleston, South Carolina: L. Fox.
  • Fox, Leonard (1988). The Jew's Harp: A Comprehensive Anthology. Selected, edited, and translated by Leonard Fox. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses. ISBN 0838751164.
  • Gallmann, Matthew S. (1977). The Jews Harp: A Select List of References With Library of Congress Call Numbers. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Archive of Folk Song.
  • Gotovtsev, Innokenty. New Technologies for Yakut Khomus. Yakutsk.[2]
  • Kolltveit, Gjermund (2006). Jew's Harps in European Archaeology. BAR International series, 1500. Oxford, England: Archaeopress. ISBN 1841719315.
  • Plate, Regina (1992). Kulturgeschichte der Maultrommel. Orpheus-Schriftenreihe zu Grundfragen der Musik, Bd. 64. Bonn: Verlag für Systematische Musikwissenschaft. ISBN 3922626645.
  • Shishigin, S. S. (1994). Igraite na khomuse. Mezhdunarodnyi tsentr khomusnoi (vargannoi) muzyki. Pokrovsk : S.S. Shishigin/Ministerstvo kul'tury Respubliki Sakha (IAkutiia). ISBN 5851570121.
  • Shishigin, Spiridon. Kulakovsky and Khomus. Yakutia.[3]
  • Smeck, Roy (1974). Mel Bay's Fun With the Jaws Harp.[4]
  • Yuan, Bingchang, and Jizeng Mao (1986). Zhongguo Shao Shu Min Zu Yue Qi Zhi. Beijing : Xin Shi Jie Chu Ban She: Xin Hua Shu Dian Beijing Fa Xing Suo Fa Xing. ISBN 7800050173.

External links


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