The Jew's harp, also known as the jaw harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp or juice harp, is a lamellophone instrument, consisting 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. Each instrument produces one pitch only, with its multiples (overtones), though different sized instruments provide different pitches. There is no standard pitch.
Jew's harps may be categorized as idioglot or heteroglot (whether or not the frame and the tine are one piece), the shape of the frame (rod or plaque), by the number of tines, and whether the tines are plucked, joint-tapped, or string-pulled.
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 the 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.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, "The vibrations of the steel tongue produce a compound sound composed of a fundamental and its harmonics. By using the cavity of the mouth as a resonator, each harmonic in succession can be isolated and reinforced, giving the instrument the compass shown."
"The lower harmonics of the series cannot be obtained, owing to the limited capacity of the resonating cavity. The black notes on the stave show the scale which may be produced by using two harps, one tuned a fourth above the other. The player on the Jew's harp, in order to isolate the harmonics, frames his mouth as though intending to pronounce the various vowels." See: bugle scale.
This instrument is considered to be one of the oldest musical instruments in the world; a musician apparently playing it can be seen in a Chinese drawing from the 4th century BC. Despite its common English name, and the sometimes used "Jew's trump", it has no 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.
Although this instrument is used by lackeys and people of the lower class, this does not mean it is not worthy of consideration by better minds ... The trump is grasped while its extremity is placed between the teeth in order to play it and make it sound ... Now one may strike the tongue with the index finger in two ways, i.e., by lifting it or lowering it: but it is easier to strike it by raising it, which is why the extremity, C, is slightly curved, so that the finger is not injured ... Many people play this instrument. When the tongue is made to vibrate, a buzzing is heard which imitates that of bees, wasps, and flies ... [if one uses] several Jew's harps of various sizes, a curious harmony is produced.
The instrument is known in many different cultures by many different names. The common English, apparently anti-Semitic name "Jew's harp" is avoided by some 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.
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.
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 and 1809, 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".
Both 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."
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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.
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.
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.
Early representations of Jew's harps appeared in Western churches since the fourteenth century.
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. They are based on the special use of the Jew's harp in Austrian folk music.
In the experimental period at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century there were very virtuoso instrumentalists on the mouth harp. Thus, for example, Johann Heinrich Scheibler was able to mount up to ten mouth harps on a support disc. He called the instrument "Aura". Each mouth harp was tuned to different basic tones, which made even chromatic sequences possible.— Walter Maurer, translated from German
Well known performer Franz Koch (1761—1831), discovered by Frederick the Great, could play two Jew's harps at once, while the also well known performer Karl Eulenstein (1802—1890), "invented a system of playing four at once, connecting them by silken strings in such a way that he could clasp all four with the lips, and strike all the four springs at the same time".
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