What is a Jaw Harp?

Matt Brady

The jaw harp is one of the world's oldest musical instruments. Scholars date its origins back as far as the 3rd or 4th century BCE, and many suspect that it could be older than that. The instrument looks simple in appearance and playability, although mastering it may be harder than it seems. The shape of the jaw harp resembles a horseshoe with the ends pinched almost together. A reed is located in the middle. When played, the instrument emits a quirky twang with a metallic vibrato. Throughout its history, the jaw harp has been played by cultures worldwide, with most cultures having come up with their own unique names for it.

Composer Ennio Morricone has used the jaw harp in his Spaghetti Western sound tracks.
Composer Ennio Morricone has used the jaw harp in his Spaghetti Western sound tracks.

When played, the pointed ends of the jaw harp are placed sideways between the lips. The harp does not enter completely into the player's mouth, but rests in the front, held in place with the player's teeth. With a combination of breathing, mouth shifting and reed plucking, the player is able to draw out different-sounding twangs. The twangs can be short in duration or be made to have a kind of echoing effect.

The jaw harp is not only one of the oldest instruments in the world, but also one of the most widely played, having been used across nearly all genres of music. It has been used by rock bands, such as The Who. Classical and Spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone has used it in his recordings as well. It can also be heard in World Music, Indian music, and in other genres.

The jaw harp is so old that it's difficult, if not impossible, to trace it all the way back to its beginnings. The earliest records of the instrument indicate its use in China around the 3rd or 4th century BCE. It's likely older than that, however, and it's hard to know for sure whether it originated in China or elsewhere.

As the jaw harp made its way throughout the world, it acquired numerous names and nicknames. Some lists have counted more than 1,000 names by which the instrument has been known. In English-speaking countries, it has been called the mouth harp, the Ozark harp, the juice harp, and the Jew's harp — even though it has no substantial connection to Jewish culture. Many of the names in other cultures can be translated into some variation on mouth harp, little trumpet, or Jew's harp. Some might even know the instrument as a Snoopy harp, having seen the American Peanuts' cartoon character Snoopy play it occasionally.

Although many jaw harps are made with metal, they are also extensively made using bamboo. In fact, bamboo may have been what jaw harps were originally made with centuries ago. Jaw harps are still manufactured worldwide, and in modern history may receive more use and attention from players and collectors than ever before.

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