Jew’s Harp

Jew’s Harp (possibly a corruption of “jaw’s harp”), musical instrument in which a small frame flanks a narrow, flexible tongue attached at one end to the frame. The frame is held against the teeth near the free end of the instrument’s tongue, which is set in vibration by various methods. The instrument’s tongue produces only one tone; when the players change the shape of the mouth cavity, various harmonics (component tones) of this fundamental tone are made prominent. The harmonic series produced is the same as that of a trumpet.

Jew’s harps of India and Europe (at least since about 1350) have onion-shaped, forged-iron frames that narrow to two protruding arms; a separate tongue is affixed to the frame. The player twangs the free end of the tongue with a finger. Clothespin-shaped jew’s harps with the frame and tongue cut of the same piece of bamboo are found in the Pacific islands. These are often sounded by jerking a cord attached to the instrument. In Southeast Asian jew’s harps, probably the oldest form, the narrow, rectangular frame (of bamboo or, rarely, sheet metal) completely surrounds the free end of the tongue, which is vibrated by plucking a tab on the flexible frame.