jew’s harp

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Title: Suède - Norvège Musiques des vallées scandinaves—Bestelanden; Kristen Bråten-Berg, jew’s harp. Label: OCORA. Format: CD. Catalogue#: C 560008. Track: 22.

Title: That’s My Rabbit, My Dog Caught It--The Old Gray Horse; Obed Pickard, jew’s harp. Label: New World Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: NW 226 MONO. Track: A-2.

Contextual Associations

[The term ‘jew’s harp’ is used on this website on two distinct levels: 1) as a classificatory term to designate any mouth-resonated lamellaphone be it of idioglot or heteroglot design; and 2) as a generic label for metal heteroglot jew’s harps that are historically associated with Europe, as discussed in this entry.] The jew's harp is a mouth-resonated heteroglot lamellaphone idiophone found widely distributed throughout Europe, parts of Asia (see morsing entry), and, to a lesser extent, in the Americas. Many names for it exist in scores of languages throughout this vast area of the world (see “Nomenclature” for a geographically-organized list of over 1,000 names for this type of instrument), and speculation abounds as to the linguistic transformations these have gone through in order to produce a name such as ’jew's harp.’ Although it has been called ‘jew’s harp’ in parts of Western Europe since at least the late 15th century, there is no proven connection to the Jewish people. And this instrument is most definitely not a harp (a type of chordophone), although both are sounded with a plucking motion. First and foremost an instrument for personal entertainment, in general it is associated with the ‘folk’ stratum of any given society and can alone or in combination with other instruments sometimes be used to accompany participatory dance. However, it has at some times and in some places been utilized in other strata of society for presentational music making. There was a period in the 18th century when playing the jew’s harp was in fashion in some European royal courts (such as in Austria), and at least one composer from that period wrote a few concertos for the jew’s harp (listen to the Adagio movement from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra in E Major, composed between 1765 and 1771). The jew’s harp pictured in the first gallery image has “Made in England” stamped on its frame; the instrument in the second gallery image has no such stamp but the shape of its frame suggests it might be of Austrian origin.


The broader end of a thin spring-steel tongue (lamella) is pressure fitted to the round end of a heavy, hairpin-shaped frame made of metal. The progressively narrowing part of the tongue runs through the middle of the sturdy, rigid frame and between its two straight extensions. The final inch of the approximately 5-inch long tongue, which extends beyond the end of the parallel frame extensions, is bent upwards at 90° and terminates with a tight loop which can be capped with a beeswax ball; this arrangement serves as a lever for flexing the tongue.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The simplicity of the jew’s harp’s appearance belies the complexity of its acoustic mechanisms, for while it acts primarily as a lamellaphone it is also to some extent an aerophone. A player holds the bulbous part of the jew’s harp’s frame in his/her left hand and presses the parallel frame extensions against their teeth with the tongue’s free end pointing outward. The primary source of sound is actuated by flexing the tip of the lamella with the right thumb and quickly releasing it to vibrate freely. This produces a fixed pitch, rich in overtones. The jew’s harp in the first gallery image produces a fundamental pitch of approximately C3, the instrument in the second gallery shot has a fundamental of A3. By changing the mouth cavity’s size and shape through a movement of the tongue and larynx, a player may sound different overtones of the fundamental pitch and affect timbre. Nothing comes in contact with the lamella once it is released to vibrate. If the musician exhales during sounding, the instrument also acts as a displacement free aerophone wherein the lamella is a sharp edge displacing air to alternate flanks. This amplifies the sound and changes the instrument's timbre. As can be heard in the two audio clips (the first from Scandinavia, the second from the U.S.A.), performers can produce a melody by sequentially selecting harmonics in the fundamental pitch of the instrument. The music played on a jew’s harp sounds loud to the performer but not to a listener--the dynamic volume heard on the a udio clip is achieved with close microphone placement and considerable amplification.


One author, Michael Wright (“Search for the Origins”), suggests that the ‘European’ heteroglot jew’s harp (such as the ones pictured on this page) appeared fully formed in Europe around the 13th century CE, probably as a consequence of a process of diffusion from a point further to the east where ancient trade routes brought peoples from many Asian cultures in contact with one another. Wright foregoes pinpointing any particular culture as the creator of the metal heteroglot jew’s harp, but speculates that the Asian idioglot jew’s harp design (such as that of the hun and kubing) is probably the older of the two. To this day, heteroglot and idioglot jew’s harps are found coexisting in many areas of Asia (especially North, Central, and South Asia), perhaps suggesting that the origin of the metal heteroglot form of this instrument happened here, later to be introduced to Europe. Once established in Europe, it is known that European colonists and commerce were responsible for introducing the instrument to the Americas, Africa (very limited presence), and to parts of Asia and Oceania where it, the metal heteroglot form, not infrequently came to replace indigenous idioglot jew’s harps. 

Bibliographic Citations

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger--Konzert for Jew’s Harp, Mandora & Orchestra; Fritz Mayr, jew’s harp, Deiter Kirsch, mandora, Munich Chamber Orchestra, Hans Stadlmair, conductor; Orfeo CD B000005975; 1992. WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, December 11, 2006. Accessed 8/11/2015:

 “Nomenclature.” Foundation Anthropodium website, accessed online 8/6/2015:

Wright, Michael. "Jew’s [jaw’s] harp [gewgaw, gumbard, jew’s trump, trump]." In Groves Music Online, accessed 8/6/2015:

________. “Search for the Origins of the Jew’s Harp.” The Silkroad Foundation Newsletter, accessed online 8/6/2015:

________, and Mervyn McLean. 1984. "Jew’s [jaw’s] harp [trump]." NGDMI v.2: 326-328.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Northern Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

121.221 idiophone--lamellaphone (or plucked idiophone; lamellae, i.e. elastic plaques, fixed at one end, are flexed and then released to return to their position of rest) in the form of a frame: single heteroglot guimbarde (trump, also known as jew's harp) that depends on the player's mouth cavity for resonance; a lamella is attached to a frame

Design and Playing Features

Category: idiophone

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Basic form of sonorous object/s for idiophone: tongue - heteroglot

Sound objects per instrument: one

Resonator design: mouth cavity

Number of players: one

Sounding principle: flexing - direct

Sound exciting agent: fingertip/s, fingernail/s, finger-mounted pick/s

Energy input motion by performer: plucking

Pitch of sound produced: definite pitch

Sound modification: changing shape of mouth cavity to amplify partials of the fundamental sound


4.4 in. length of frame (gallery #1) 3.1 in. length of frame (gallery #2)

Primary Materials



Made in England (gallery #1) unknown (gallery #2)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter