The Jew's harp is a small musical instrument instantly recognizable for its twangy, vibrating sound. The instrument has a bow held between the teeth or lips and a lone stem that is plucked by the fingers. Found throughout the world, the Jew’s harp is believed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. The name “Jew's harp” is now considered offensive by many, particularly because the instrument has no special connection to the Jewish people or Judaism. It is known by a wide variety of other names, including jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp and trump harp.
Typically made of metal, the Jew's harp belongs to a class known as lamellophones, instruments that produce sound through the strumming of a plate or reed that is attached at one end but dangles freely at the other. The strumming of the reed produces vibrations. With the Jew's harp, the player can produce different notes by shifting the instrument’s position in the mouth and controlling his or her breathing.
An oval piece called the frame fits into the player’s mouth. One end of the frame becomes two parallel bars known as the arms, which protrude from the player’s mouth. A metal piece called the tongue runs from one side of the instrument to the other, terminating at the end of the arms into a long, curved piece known as the trigger. Atop the trigger is a small loop. The player plucks the trigger, producing the instrument’s distinctive twang.
When playing the instrument, the musician must be sure to hold it in his or her mouth so the trigger snaps outward and doesn’t hit him or her in the face. The frame must be held tightly between the teeth or lips — otherwise the instrument can produce uncomfortable vibrations in the mouth. Because the instrument is held in the mouth, it is not uncommon to see novices drool as they play the instrument.
The Jew's harp is known to date to 300 B.C. Its earliest known use occurred in China, with the instrument gradually appearing across Asia and Europe as trade routes grew in the following centuries. Throughout the years, the instrument has acquired literally dozens of names, from the German maultrommel to Brazilian harpa de boca to the Balinese gegongg. Today, the Jew's harp can be found across the world in a variety of music genres, thanks largely to its simplicity, relative cheapness and unique sound.