Although the jaw harp is a rather simple-looking instrument, it has quite a long and interesting history dating back at least the 4th 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, 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.
Is the jaw harp related to Jewish culture since it is sometimes called a jew’s harp? Most historians think the phrase “jew’s harp” is a mispronounciation of one of its popular names as it is not found within Jewish folk music or Semetic cultures at all. It is; however, frequently used in ritual practice and shamanic music. The droning sound of the instrument can create a trance-like state and is widely used in regions of Asia in this manner.
PLAYING 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.
THREE AWESOME JAW HARP VIDEOS
Mongolian shaman playing jaw harp
Jaw harp in India
Woman Musician at Hungarian jaw harp festival
The photo of an assortment 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 resource-rich site here: