What is a Jew’s Harp?
The Jew’s harp is a musical instrument that dates back many years in many cultures, particularly across the entire Eurasian continent. The sound from the jew’s harp is created by the vibrating tongue of the jaw harp, the frame that is placed on slightly open lips or teeth. When the tongue swings into the oral cavity, it transmits its vibration to the oral cavity, where it resonates to create the sound by expanding or reducing the oral cavity.
With proficiency, you can modulate several overtones through the basic tone of the jew’s harp, which corresponds to the oscillation frequency of your tongue. Moreover, with different striking and breathing techniques, several tones, and rhythmic effects are created with the jew’s harp.
Origin of the Jew Harp
Although it is difficult to precisely point to where the jew’s harp originated since the early models, made of bamboo or wood have not lived on. The jew’s harp is said to have originated from Oceania, Southeast Asia. Here the original forms of jaw harps were made of bamboo and are still in use today. Most importantly, they are deeply anchored in the communities’ cultural practices.
Today, jew’s harps are commonly found in Asia and Europe. It serves, among other things, as a ritual instrument, rhythm instrument, courtship instrument, a shepherd, and children’s playing instrument. It rarely serves as a melody instrument.
But, if you are into learning to play it as your musical instrument, then you have come to the right place.
STEP 1. Making a Sound on the Jew’s Harp
To learn to play the jaw harp, you must learn how to place and hold it on your mouth. Hold the frame properly on your mouth using your three fingers, with the thumb and middle finger holding the bottom and the pointy finger holding the top of the frame. Be careful not to touch the Reed as you will mute the jew’s harp.
You can also consider holding the harp in any way you like and are comfortable as long as you hold it firmly and nicely. For instance, you can place it on your mouth, holding it sideways with the plucker pointing away from your mouth.
Keep in mind that the plucker produces the sound on the jew harp and your mouth resonates it. As such, it is crucial to place it correctly on your mouth between the teeth slightly open with your lips closed. Ensure the shape of your mouth is hollow to resonate the sound efficiently.
Once the jaw harp sits correctly on your lips, you can pluck the plucker whichever way you like but not hard because you may bend the metal.
Step 2. Troubleshooting Your Jaw Harp Sound
Suppose your jaw harp does not make a sound. How can you go about it? One of the main factors why your harp may fail to make a sound is holding the metal tongue. By doing so, you prevent it from vibrating to create the sound when plucked.
What may also prevent your jaw harp from making a sound is the closing of teeth. This prevents the vibrating sound of the metal tongue from going into and out of your mouth. Therefore, make sure your teeth are slightly open when playing the jaw harp.
Biting the frame when playing prevents the creation of sound. As such, the frame prevents the metal tongue from vibrating to produce a sound that should go into your mouth for resonance. As such, make sure your lips are slightly closed enough to hold the jaw harp in position without necessarily biting the frame.
Finally, your jaw harp may not produce sound if it does not resonate because it is not hollow. As such, consider putting enough air inside your mouth and make it sufficiently hollow to resonate sound on your jaw harp when plucked.
Step 3. Making Vowel Sounds on the Jaw Harp
To learn to play the vowel sounds on your jaw harp requires changing the shape of your mouth. Different mouth shapes create different vowel sounds on your harp. Making vowel sound is even easier since you can create them by changing the shape of your mouth the same way as you pronounce the vowels A-E-I-O-U, but don’t produce a sound. However, your teeth and lips must not move as you play the jaw harp.
It is the tongue’s movement that creates the sound in your mouth when you change the vowel. You can try making a combination of vowel sounds by changing your vowels as you play. Give it a try and if you find it difficult to learn to play, we are here to help.
Step 4. Bending the Sound of your Jaw Harp
To bend your sound proficiently, you need to combine your previous vowel note with a bent one, like Oi-Ai-Ei-Ui. You can practice creating a different bent note on your jaw harp for perfection. The more you practice a variety of bent sounds the more you will get comfortable playing them. Give it a try and let us know your progress. Should you get stuck, view this youtube video for proper guidance.
Step 5. Creating More Jaw Harp Sounds – Opening your Throat
When you speak with your throat open, you can create a deep tone. Remember the feeling of you yawning, that is when your throat is wide open. You can do this while holding the instrument on your mouth and make some combinations with your normal tone. Make a much deep tone as you can by opening up your throat.
You can practice more to get more comfortable and proficient in making different tones and combinations with your open throat on the jaw harp. If you get stuck, you can refer to this Youtube video for more guidance.
Step 6. Jaw Harp Sounds – A Sound We Can’t Name
While opening your throat, you can create more tones by using bending vowel tones. So, to make the notes, you can start by opening your throat and bring it back to neutral. Once you achieve this, you can practice doing it with your jaw harp on your mouth.
You will realize that it creates bending sounds that are deeper than the normal sounds as illustrated in this Youtube video. You can make variations by making different movements on your mouth while your throat is wide open. You can then bring it back to the neutral position.
The more you learn to play, the more you make combinations of these tones. So, get into it and let us know how you go. If you get stuck, we are here to help.
Step 7. Tongue Movements and The Jaw Harp
With your tongue movement, you can effectively learn to play different tones on your jaw harp. You can employ various techniques in doing this. First, try to create a note using your tongue without the jaw harp on your mouth. For instance, you can make a note like taka-taka-taka.
With this note in mind, practice it without necessarily producing the tone while plucking your jaw harp. Learn to play often until you feel comfortable and proficient to make tonal variations by doing different pluckings at different intervals.
Step 8. How to Breath While Playing the Jew’s Harp
When playing the jaw harp you will want to breathe. But, how can you breathe without affecting the quality of rhythm you produce with the jaw harp? Start by breathing in and out normally using your mouth. Once you feel you are ok, try to breathe in and out while the jaw harp is on your mouth. You can then try to create a vibrating sound while plucking the plucker and breathing in and out.
Consider making different variations by timing in your plucking as you breathe in and out. Equally, you can make combinations like breath in-pluck, breath out-pluck, or breathe in breath out then pluck. The more you practice, the more fun it gets.
Now that you have known how to play a jaw harp, let’s look at the different types of jaw harps available for you to play.
Types of Jew Harps
· Toothed and Lip Mouth Harps
These are the two most common versions of jaw harps available. The lip jaw is also referred to as the frame jew’s harp. The toothed is also known as the hoop jaw harp. These types of jaw harps are played by hand by plucking on the same side. The toothed jaw harp is plucked at the end of the reed. The frame jaw harp is plucked at the end of the frame.
Therefore, the spring vibrates to generate the keynote of the jaw harp that is resonated in your mouth. Your oral cavity serves as a resonance space and can amplify different overtones of the fundamental tone that creates different pitches and timbres.
The tooth harp must be held to the teeth when playing, thus its name. However, you can also play the jaw harp on the lips. As such, the vibration of the hoop is observed by a weight. Then the bar vibrations right on the soft lips, which will dampen this vibration and that of the reed. So, without the teeth, the sound of the hoop jaw harp after plucking will be very brief and may not resonate at all.
The frame jaw harps are quite diverse and are made from one piece. The jew’s harp reed is cut into a plate made of wood or metal and is often enclosed by the frame. The player holds the frame on the tip side of the tongue to pluck the frame than the reed.
In both types of jaw harps, a thin gap exists between the metal tongue and the frame. The lips lie against the jaw harp to establish the connection to the oral cavity to act as a resonance space.
The vibrating tongue is attached to the frame through a spring. The spring is, in a layman’s language, the hinge between the reed and the frame. Therefore, the frame vibrates as a reaction to the reed’s vibration – in what is commonly known as action equals reaction in the field of physics.
· Plucking Jaw Harp and Mouth Jaw Harp
Plucking jaw harp and mouth harps are all subspecies of the frame or the lip mouth harps. However, they differ from the classic lip jaw harps in the manner they are played.
In Plucking Jaw Harp, a thin yet stable rope is connected to the jew’s harp reed side and then made to vibrate on lip jaws. The tongue is gently made to vibrate by pulling the rope, often at about 200 forward to the side of the jaw harp.
The Plucking Jaw Harp is found in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and even Northern Japan. Owing to the increased physical effort put in when playing this jew’s harp, the body is often in the dance.
· Rapping Jew Harp
These are rare types of jaw harps. It is found in Bali, a region in the Philippines. It features a plucking end with a small block that a player knocks perpendicular to the jews harp to set the reed vibrating.
What are the Different Jews Harp Playing Techniques?
There is no single verified technic for playing jews harp. However, we explore various techniques that can be modified and expanded at the will of the player. These different playing techniques apply to all kinds of jew’s harps. Without much ado, let’s get into it!
In this technique, the jews harp is held with one hand to slightly opened lips to allow the metal tongue to swing between them. For the Hoop Jaw Harp, make sure it is in contact with the open incisors. The frame or the end of the metal tongue is plucked with the fingers. This creates the keynote of the jaw harp, which resonates by the mouth cavity.
With the mouth cavity as a resonance space, the various overtones of the fundamental tone are amplified to create different pitches. You can hold and pluck the jaw harp in whatever way you feel comfortable.
Through rhythmic plucking, your fingers can play separate tones to create tone lengths. You can do this using a single, outstretched finger to tear the metal tongue away from your mouth from below.
You can also pluck the bent end of the metal tongue towards your mouth. Most jaw harps create a better sound when plucked towards the mouth. With a back and forth plucking of the metal tongue, quick tonal sequences are achieved.
· Repetition, Triple Fingers
If your plucking hand is facing the mouth with the palm, the ring, middle finger, and index finger can alternatively scratch the metal tongue in quick succession, just like how a flamenco player plucks a guitar side with three fingers. However, this technique requires more practice to attain proficiency. The thumb can support the hand on the cheekbones to keep the hand steady while you move the middle finger or index finger.
· Articulation Through Breathing
Holding and plucking the jaw harp while the rest happens in the mouth and throat or the diaphragm as this technique suggests. In comparison to other techniques, articulated tones can also be created by rapid or slow breaths. The in and outflowing of air reinforces the fundamental tone, and as you regularly pluck the metal reed, the breath sets snarling accents between the plucking.
· Articulation with the Tongue
The pronouncing tone sequence with the tongue works like articulation on the flute. In the case of the flute, the tongue interrupts the flow of air while in the jaw harp the airflow is not needed. Rather, the tongue opens and closes the palate cavity, the resonance space. Regardless, it works in the same way as playing flute.
To attain a slow tone sequence, you can open and close your tongue on the front roof of the mouth as if speaking dü dü dü. For quick tone sequence, the tongue should be in a rocking movement with the front tongue on the front palate as if speaking dü dl dü dl dü dl.
· Pitch, Melody Play
Usually, the pitch is changed by the movements of the tongue. This is done by changing the shape of the size of the oral cavity. Your tongue movement should be like when speaking the different vowels and making different combinations. That way, you can play different melodies whose tones include the overtone series to the fundamental tone of the reed.
Tips for Caring for Jew’s Harps
Caring for your jew’s harp is crucial as it will determine not only how long it will last but only ensuring that it is clean before every use. Therefore, it is vital to clean and dry your jaw harp after every use with a cloth or cellulose. This will prevent the jew’s harp from rusting and saliva residues from drying on between the frame and tongue. Rust and dried saliva residue can have a drastic effect on the sound.
If you own a jew’s harp made of bare steel, it will be prone to rust. So, we recommend applying Vaseline or ballistol oil after playing to prevent rusting. While Vaseline is a common petroleum-based lip balm, Ballistol is purely plant-based fine mechanics light oil best known for its healing effect. Since it is dermatologically certified as safe, we highly recommend it for caring for your jew’s harp.
Learning to play a jaw harp as a first-timer can be challenging. So, you will, however, require passion, commitment, and time to learn how to play the jaw harp proficiently. With the information, you can smoothly learn to play this ancient sound instrument. All the best!