The jaw harp looks like a very simple instrument, but it has quite a long and interesting history dating back at least the fourth century BC where it appears as a musical instrument in a Chinese drawing. It can be found throughout Asia and in various cultures around the world and has a host of different names including mouth harp, Ozark harp, juice harp, jew’s harp, trump, drymba, doromb, khomus, kubyz and quote a few more that vary according to the culture and type of music where it is being played.
Lots of people wonder if the jaw harp is related to Jewish culture since it is sometimes called a jew’s harp? Most historians think the phrase “jew’s harp” is a mistaken pronunciation of one of the instrument’s popular names because it is not found within Jewish folk music or Semetic cultures at all. Although it’s not a part of Jewish traditions, it is frequently used in shamanic music and ritual practice. The droning sound of the instrument can create a trance-like state and is widely used in regions of Asia in this manner.
Check out the wide variety of jaw harps seen above from the official Jew’s Harp Guild website (photo used by permission).
HOW TO PLAY A JAW HARP
A jaw harp consists of two parts. There’s a frame held inside the mouth and a “tongue” piece that is plucked outside the mouth by the musician’s finger. Although this might sound easy, there are many techniques used in playing the instrument and some require a good deal of practice to master.
Here’s a few hints that can help the new jaw harp player:
When putting the harp in your mouth the upper and lower lips should rest on the top and bottom of the frame, the front teeth must be slightly apart.
Try plucking the harp by pushing or pulling. While the “tongue piece” is in motion, silently pronounce “A-E-I-O-U”. This shows you how to create different sounds by changing the size of your mouth cavity.
Breathing in different ways and moving your tongue slightly also changes the sounds created by the jaw harp. Experimenting with this will allow you to find different ways to create your own music on this unique instrument.
What does a jaw harp sound like? Check out these three very different examples of jaw harp music from Mongolia, India and Hungary.
JAW HARP VIDEOS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The photo of jaw harps seen above is used by permission from the Jew’s Harp Guild who also publish an excellent step-by-step player’s guide as well as tips for advanced players. Check out their wonderful resource-rich site here:
Discover unique instruments and musical crafts from all over the world at the Online Music Museum: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1TOfuFNZ3NpsW8fSOSanaw