The Jew's harp, also known as the jaw harp, mouth harp, gewgaw, guimbard, jew's trump, trump, Ozark harp, Galician harp, or murchunga is a lamellophone instrument, consisting 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. Each instrument produces one pitch only, with its multiples (overtones), though different sized instruments provide different pitches. There is no standard pitch.
Jew's harps may be categorized as idioglot or heteroglot (whether or not the frame and the tine are one piece), by the shape of the frame (rod or plaque), by the number of tines, and whether the tines are plucked, joint-tapped, or string-pulled.
The frame is held firmly against the performer's parted teeth or lips (depending on the type), using the jaw 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 and possible pain. The note or tone thus produced is constant in pitch, though by changing the shape of the 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 lower harmonics of the series cannot be obtained, owing to the limited capacity of the resonating cavity. The black notes on the stave show the scale which may be produced by using two harps, one tuned a fourth above the other. The player on the Jew's harp, in order to isolate the harmonics, frames his mouth as though intending to pronounce the various vowels." See: bugle scale.
The earliest depiction of somebody playing what seems to be a Jew's harp is a Chinese drawing from the 4th Century BCE. Archaeological finds of surviving examples in Europe have been claimed to be almost as old, but those dates have been challenged both on the grounds of excavation techniques, and the lack of contemporary writing or pictures mentioning the instrument.
Although this instrument is used by lackeys and people of the lower class, this does not mean it is not worthy of consideration by better minds ... The trump is grasped while its extremity is placed between the teeth in order to play it and make it sound ... Now one may strike the tongue with the index finger in two ways, i.e., by lifting it or lowering it: but it is easier to strike it by raising it, which is why the extremity, C, is slightly curved, so that the finger is not injured ... Many people play this instrument. When the tongue is made to vibrate, a buzzing is heard which imitates that of bees, wasps, and flies ... [if one uses] several Jew's harps of various sizes, a curious harmony is produced.
There are many theories for the origin of the name Jew's harp. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this name appears earliest in Walter Raleigh's Discouerie Guiana in 1596, spelled "Iewes Harp". The "jaw" variant is attested at least as early as 1774 and 1809, the "juice" variant 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". (Though in the French idiom, if two substantives are joined together, the qualifying noun is invariably the last.)
Both theories—that the name is a corruption of "jaws" or "jeu"—are described by the OED as "baseless and inept". The OED says that, "More or less satisfactory reasons may be conjectured: e.g. that the instrument was actually made, sold, or imported to England by Jews, or purported to be so; or that it was attributed to them, as a good commercial name, suggesting the trumps and harps mentioned in the Bible."
Man playing the Slovak drumbľa
Woman playing the Rajasthani morchang
The angkouch (Khmer: អង្គួច) is a Cambodian jew's harp. It is a folk instrument made of bamboo and carved into a long, flat shape with a hole in the center and the tongue across the hole. There is also a metal variety, more round or tree-leaf shaped. It may also have metal bells attached. The instrument is both a wind instrument and percussion instrument. As a wind instrument, it is placed against the mouth, which acts as a resonator and tool to alter the sound. Although mainly a folk instrument, better-made examples exist. While the instrument was thought to be the invention of children herding cattle, it is sometimes used in public performance, to accompany the Mahori music in public dancing.
In Sindhi the Jew's 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.
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.
Early representations of Jew's harps appeared in Western churches since the fourteenth century.
The Austrian composer Johann Albrechtsberger—chiefly known today as a teacher of Beethoven—wrote seven concerti for Jew's harp, mandora, and orchestra between 1769 and 1771. Four of them have survived, in the keys of F major, E-flat major, E major, and D major. They are based on the special use of the Jew's harp in Austrian folk music.
In the experimental period at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century there were very virtuoso instrumentalists on the mouth harp. Thus, for example, Johann Heinrich Scheibler was able to mount up to ten mouth harps on a support disc. He called the instrument "Aura". Each mouth harp was tuned to different basic tones, which made even chromatic sequences possible.
Well known performer Franz Koch (1761–1831), discovered by Frederick the Great, could play two Jew's harps at once, while the also well known performer Karl Eulenstein (1802—1890), "invented a system of playing four at once, connecting them by silken strings in such a way that he could clasp all four with the lips, and strike all the four springs at the same time".
The temir komuz is made of iron usually with a length of 100–200 mm and with a width of approximately 2–7 mm. The range of the instrument varies with the size of the instrument, but generally hovers around an octave span. The Kyrgyz people are exceptionally proficient on the temir komuz instrument and it is quite popular among children, although some adults continue to play the instrument. There is a National Artist of Kyrgyz Republic who performs on the instrument, temir komuz. One time twenty Kirgiz girls played in a temir komuz ensemble on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Temir komuz pieces were notated by Zataevich in two or three parts. Apparently an octave drone is possible, or even an ostinato alternating the fifth step of a scale with an octave.
^"Jews' trump, Jew's-trump". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989.
^ abPoss, M.D. "Cambodian Bamboo Jew's Harps". mouthmusic.com. Retrieved 27 October 2018. ... these bamboo Jew's harps are easy to hold and may be longer lasting due to being made of thicker material than many other similar instruments. Held against the lips, they are easy to play and offer the same full, percussive sound as the "Kubings."
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