Checked content

Jew's harp

Related subjects: Musical Instruments

Did you know...

SOS Children, an education charity, organised this selection. With SOS Children you can choose to sponsor children in over a hundred countries

Jew's harp, from an American Civil War camp near Winchester, Virginia
A modern Jew's harp
A metal Jew's harp (demir-xomus) from Tuva

The Jew's harp, jaw harp, or mouth harp is thought 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 3rd century BC . It is also sometimes called a Jew's trump or juice harp, among other names, and has no particular connection with Judaism.

As with the parallel example " jew's ear" for the jelly fungus Auricularia auricula-judae, the name's semitic reference is controversial and is avoided by many speakers, giving rise to various alternative terms. Another name used to identify the instrument, especially in scholarly literature, is the older English trump, while guimbarde, derived from the French word for the instrument, also features in unabridged dictionaries and recent revival efforts.

The instrument is a lamellophone, which is in the category of plucked idiophones: it consists of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue or reed attached to a frame. On the other hand, the jew's harp belongs to the aerophones, together with the wind instruments and the instruments of the accordion type: In this class of instruments the sound is generated by a vibrating air column (flutes etc.) or by a stream of air stimulated to sound by a reed (harmonica, accordion, jew's harp). The tongue/reed is placed in the performer's mouth and plucked with the finger to produce a note. The frame is held against the performer's teeth or lips, using the jaw (thus "jaw harp") and mouth as a resonator, greatly increasing the volume of the instrument. The note thus produced is constant in pitch, though by changing the shape of his or her mouth and the amount of air contained in it the performer can cause different overtones to sound and thus create melodies.

The instrument is known in many different cultures by at least a thousand different names. A nomenclature is written by Phons Bakx titled 'The 1000 names of the jew's harp'. Since trances are facilitated by droning sounds, the Jew's harp has been associated with magic and has been a common instrument in shamanic rituals.


There are many theories for the origin of the name Jew's harp, one being that it may derive from its popularity amongst Eurasian steppe-peoples like the Khazars, perhaps being introduced to Europe from that direction. Another explanation proposed is that it is a corruption of "jaw harp", while a less likely explanation espoused by some is that its name comes from "juice harp" from the amount of saliva produced when played by amateurs. Both of these explanations lack historical backing, as both the "jaw" and the "juice" variants 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".. Another origin theory stems from the fact that the instrument, which resembles the form of older handheld harps, has but one moving 'string' to be plucked; compared to the many strings in a typical harp, the owner of this instrument could be considered 'cheap' (typically synonymous with 'Jew' in times past).

The Oxford English Dictionary calls theories that the name is a corruption of "jaws" or "jeu" "baseless and inept" and goes on to speculate that "the instrument was actually made, sold, or sent to England by Jews, or supposed to be so; or that it was attributed to them, as a good commercial name...".

Many names of the instrument, in English or other languages, refer to other musical instruments, cordophones, membranophones, or aerophones largely included.


In traditional music

The Jew's harp is an integral element in the music of Tuva. Known as the khomuz, the instrument is used to play the same overtone melodies used in the khoomei, sygyt, and kargyraa styles of overtone singing. The instrument is also a traditional part of Alpine musical styles, from Hungary to France. The earliest trouve in Europe is a bronze-harp dating 5th to 7th century.

In classical music

Around 1765, Beethoven's teacher Johann Georg Albrechtsberger composed at least seven concertos for Jew's harp, mandora, and strings (three survive in a library in Budapest). They are pleasant, well written works in the galant style, interpreting melodies of contemporary Austrian folk songs.

In Indian classical music

In South Indian Classical Music the instrument is often used for percussion accompaniment. Satyajit ray has used a taniyaavartanam that uses this and other percussion instruments in his movie Gopi Gayen Bhaga Bayen.

In popular music

The Jew's harp has been used on occasion in popular music. Such uses include:

  • Ozark Mountain Daredevils's "Chicken Train"
  • Hank Williams, Jr.'s "Hog Wild"
  • Elizabeth Cook's "Times are Tough in Rock 'N Roll"
  • Gigi D'Amico's "The Future Sound Of Sicily"
  • Madredeus's "Haja o que Houver" from the album Antologia
  • Old Time Relijun uses the instrument on many albums and in their live show.
  • Blur's "Country Sad Ballad Man" from their self-titled album.
  • Joanna Newsom's "Emily" and "Cosmia" from the album Ys.
  • The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," from the SMiLE Project
  • Neil Young's "Get Back to the Country" from the album Old Ways
  • Parliament's "Little Country Boy" from the album Osmium
  • De La Soul's "Potholes in My Lawn", from the album "3 Feet High and Rising"
  • Rufus Wainwright in the song "Crumb by Crumb" from Want Two
  • Joe Walsh's " Life's Been Good" from the album But Seriously Folks
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers' " Give it Away," on the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik
  • Black Sabbath's "Sleeping Village," from their eponymous album, and "The Writ," from their "Sabotage" album
  • Aphex Twin's "Logon Rock Witch," on the Richard D. James Album
  • The Zutons in "Nightmare Part II," from the album Who Killed The Zutons?
  • Violent Femmes in "Black Girls" from the album Hallowed Ground
  • The Who in "Join Together"
  • The Incredible String Band in "Koeeoaddi There," from The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
  • Leonard Cohen throughout the album Songs from a Room, and on both "On that Day" and "Nightingale" from his Dear Heather album
  • The Beta Band in "She's the One," from The Three EPs
  • DeVotchKa in "Cuba Libra" from the album SuperMelodrama.
  • Billie Jo Spears in " Blanket on the Ground"
  • Neutral Milk Hotel in "Jaw Harp" from the cassette Invent Yourself A Shortcake
  • Sixteen Horsepower uses the instrument on a number of songs.
  • Scissor Sisters' "I Can't Decide" from the album Ta-Dah
  • Dixie Chicks Album "Fly" song: " Sin Wagon"
  • Mr. Bungle's "Violenza Domestica," from their Disco Volante album (played by William Winant)
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie sings with it solo on "Cripple Creek"
  • Daniel Higgs from indie rock band Lungfish recorded Magic Alphabet, a solo album of Jew's harp improvisations
  • John Butler Trio in the song Funky Tonight
  • Justin Bello's various cover songs including, but not limited to, songs such as "Sandstorm." Popularized amongst the Baton Rouge, LA and LSU music scene.
  • Internet band Lemon Demon uses one on the song Kitten is Angry and on Dinosaurchestra Part Two
  • Down AKA Kilo on Lean Like A Cholo.
  • Backstreet Boys on I Want You Back.
  • Globe Trekker's theme song.
  • The Seatbelts on "Go Go Cactus Man", from the album Blue.
  • In the Hidden Village music from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Aside from these artists, the instrument is quite prevalent in the folk metal genre, with bands such as Otyg, Folkearth, Yggdrasil, Finntroll, Moonsorrow and many more including the instrument in their regular line-ups. Black Metal band Enslaved and Death Metal bands Molested and Hate Eternal have also used the Jew's harp.

In film

The instrument, referred to as a "mouth harp" can also be seen in the NBC show Scrubs. It is in Episode 5.15 (Prod # 515), " My Extra Mile"

Henry Fonda plays the instrument as the title character in John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln.

The instrument can be seen in the film The Wicker Man, at the rehearsal of Mayday celebrations, on the song "Maypole," as it has long been identified with mysticism or paganism.

Gina Gershon plays the jew's harp in the Wachowski Brothers film Bound

The Jew's harp can also be seen in The Swedish film The Virgin Spring, directed by Ingmar Bergman.

The soundtrack of Buck and the Preacher, with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, features the jaw-harp.

It is featured prominently in Emir Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat

Snoopy plays one in the animated films A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Come Home, and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don't Come Back!!). Some Jew's harps are still packaged and marketed as "Snoopy's harp".

It can also be heard as a prominent instrument in the theme song written by Ennio Morricone from the movie For a Few Dollars More, starring Clint Eastwood.

The Jew's harp is also used heavily in the score for the 2007 remake of the film 3:10 To Yuma.

The Jew's harp makes a brief appearance in James Horner's score for the 1991 film The Rocketeer when the Rocketeer flies at low altitude through a cornfield to the bemusement of a number of country bumpkins (including Tiny Ron, in a brief cameo).

In the first cave scene of the film Dead Poets Society, the character Pitts can be seen playing a jaw-harp while the other boys are chanting.

Keith Carradine plays the jaw harp while riding on a train in the western The Long Riders.

Names of specific Jew's harps around the world

  • Afghanistan - chang
  • Argentina - torompe
  • Bosnia - drombulja
  • Brazil - berimboca, "harpa de boca", "berimbau de boca"
  • Bulgaria - drumboy ("дръмбой", "драмбой")
  • Chile - torompe
  • China - kǒu xián (口弦, lit. "mouth string")
  • Croatia - drombulja
  • Kajkavian - brunda (lit. "the grumbling one")
  • Czech Republic - brumle
  • Denmark - jødeharpe (lit. "Jew harp")
  • Esperanto - buŝharpo (lit. mouth harp)
  • Estonia - parmupill (lit. "horse-fly instrument")
  • Euskal Herria (Basque country) - musugitarra (lit. "kiss guitar")
  • Finland - munniharppu
  • France - guimbarde
Corsica - riberbula
  • Germany - Maultrommel (lit. "mouth drum")
  • Hawaii - ʻukeke
  • Hungary - doromb
  • Iceland - gyðingaharpa (kjálkaharpa)
  • India
Andhra Pradesh - morsing
Assam - gogona
Karnataka - morsing
Kerala - mukhar-shanq (lit. "mouth conch")
Rajasthan - morchang
Tamil Nadu - mugar-sing
  • Indonesia
Bali - genggong
Butonese - ore-ore mbondu or ore Ngkale
Kailinese - yori
Toraja - karombi
  • Iran - zanboorak (زنبورك)
  • Ireland - trumpa; tromb (Gaelic)
  • Israel - nevel pe (נבל פה, lit. "mouth harp")
  • Italy - scacciapensieri ("thought dispeller")
  • Japan - koukin (口琴, lit. "mouth harp")
  • Kazakhstan - shang-kobuz
  • Kyrgyzstan - temir-komuz (lit. "iron komuz"), ooz-komuz (lit. "mouth komuz")
  • Laos
Hmong - rab ncas (also in Vietnam, Thailand, and China)
  • Latvia - vargāns
  • Lithuania - dambrelis
  • Mongolia - khel khuur (Хэл хуур, lit. "tongue fiddle").
  • Munanese (Indonesia) - karinta
  • Nepal - Murchunga
  • Netherlands - mondharp (lit. "mouth harp")
  • Norway - munnharpe
  • Philippines
Maguindanao - kubing
Maranao - kobing
Palawan - aroding
Tagbanua - aru-ding
Tingguian - kolibau
Yakan - kulaing
  • Poland - drumla
  • Portugal - berimbau
  • Québec - Guimbarde or Ruine-Babines
  • Romania - drâmbă
  • Russia - vargan (Варган)
Yakutia (Republic of Sakha) - khomus(Хомус)
Bashkiria - kubyz(Кубыз)
Tuva - khomus, homus, komus, xomus (Хомус)
  • Sardinia - trunfa
  • Scotland - tromb (Gaelic)
  • Sicily - marranzanu
  • Slovakia - drumbľa
  • Serbia - drombulje (Дромбуље)
  • Slovenia - dromlja
  • South Africa (Afrikaans) - trompie
  • Spain - guimbarda or birimbao or arpa de boca
Asturias - trompa
  • Sweden - mungiga
  • Switzerland (Swiss German) - "mal trommel"
  • Taiwan
Amis - datok or tivtiv
Atayal - lubu
Bunun - honghong
  • Thailand - jong nong (จ้องหน่อง; term used in central Thailand); or huen (หืน; term used in northeast Thailand)
  • Turkmenistan - gopuz (Гопуз or Гапыз)
  • Ukraine - drymba (Дримба)
  • Vietnam - đàn môi
  • Wales - sturmant
Retrieved from ""