Jew's harp

Jew's harp
Altai khomus/kamus
Jew's harp sold as "Snoopy's Harp", as featured in the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown

The Jew's harp, also known as the jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp or juice harp, is a lamellophone instrument, 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 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 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 (tone) can be varied by breathing in and out.


Young man with Jew's harp by Dirck van Baburen

This instrument is considered 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 Jews or Judaism. This instrument is native to Asia and used in all tribes of Turkic peoples in Asia, among whom it is variously referred to as a temir komuz (literally, iron komuz), agiz komuzu (literally, mouth komuz), gubuz or doromb.

The instrument is known in many different cultures by many different names. The common English name "Jew's harp" is sometimes considered controversial or potentially misleading, and is thus avoided by a few speakers or manufacturers. (For example, the above-pictured tie-in Jew's harp from the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown is sold as "Snoopy's Harp" instead.) Another name used to identify the instrument, especially in scholarly literature, is the older English "trump", while "guimbarde", the French word for the instrument, can be found in unabridged dictionaries and is featured in recent revival efforts.

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]

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.[5]

Demir-khomus from Tuva


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[6] and 1809,[7] 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".[8] But 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."[9]


Man playing the Slovakian drumbľa
Woman playing the Rajasthani morchang

Carnatic music

The instrument, known as morsing in South India, is part of the rhythmic section in a Carnatic music ensemble.[10]

Turkic traditional music

The instrument is also used by Sakha or Yakut people and Tuvans with the name xomus, or khomus.

Sindhi music

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.[11]

Sicilian Music

In Sicilian language the Jew's harp is known as the "Marranzanu". It is a common element of Sicilian folk music. It also commonly in contemporary styles to provide a distinctive element of Sicilian identity to Sicilian music.

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.[12]

Austrian Jew's harp playing

Whereas Jew's harp music is predominantly played with a drone, i.e., the one fundamental note is sounding throughout the playing, the tradition in Austrian folk music since about the 18th century has been to use multiple Jew's harps tuned to the main degree of a diatonic scale that are used according to the chords of the music. Thus, Austrian Jew's harp music uses typical Western harmony. In recognition of this special development, the UNESCO has included Austrian Jew's harp playing in its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.[13]

Western classical music

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.[14] They are based on the special use of the Jew's harp in Austrian folk music.

The American composer Charles Ives wrote a part for Jew's harp in the Washington's Birthday movement of A Symphony: New England Holidays[15]

Western Rock Music

The Jew's harp provides a distinctive sound for the beginning of The Who's "Join Together".[16]

See also


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  1. "Sicilian Item of the day:Marranzano". Siciliamo (blog). 2007-08-10. Retrieved 2008-02-20.
  2. Silkroad Foundation; Lee, Adela C.Y. "The Search for the Origins of the Jee's Harp". Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  3. Sansonese, Nigro J. (1994). The Body of Myth: Mythology, Shamanic Trance, and the Sacred, by J. Nigro Sansanese. ISBN 9780892814091.
  5. Slobin, Mark (1969). Kirgiz Instrumental Music. Theodore Front Music. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-614-16459-6. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  6. Muiscellaneous and Fugitive pieces, vol3, Johnson et al. 1774
  7. Pegge's Anonymiana, 1818, p 33
  8. Timbs, John (1858). Things Not Generally Known: Popular Errors Explained & Illustrated. p. 61.
  9. "Jews' trump, Jew's-trump". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989.
  10. (1999). South Asia : The Indian Subcontinent. Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 5. Publisher: Routledge; Har/Com. ISBN 978-0-8240-4946-1.
  11. sindhi alghozo. YouTube. 9 July 2009. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  12. Tempo Novo - Leamington Spa, Myspace; accessed 23 February 2014.
  13. Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria: Jew's Harp Playing in Austria, retrieved 7 Aug 2015
  14. Albrechtsberger: Concerto for Jew's Harp, Amazon CD Listing (Munich Chamber Orchestra, December 19, 1992, for more see:
  15. Fox, Leonard (1988). The Jew's Harp: A Comprehensive Anthology. Associated University Presses, Inc. p. 33. ISBN 9780838751169. Retrieved 12 May 2015.
  16. The Who - Join Together. YouTube. 20 March 2010. Retrieved 16 September 2016.


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