The Magic of the Jaw Harp

jews harp

Have you ever wondered what the oldest instrument in the world is? No? Excellent, because we don’t actually know the answer. What we do know is that it might be that funny looking thing above: the jaw harp.

This ancient instrument (otherwise known as the Jew’s harp, mouth harp and juice harp, among many other names) is a funky looking percussive device that consists of a metal tongue which is plucked with the player’s finger. Devilishly simple to play, or at least to get a sound out of, it has been around for many, many years. It pops up in all kinds of different cultures and has been played, plucked and puckered long before synthesized drum beats dominated the music industry.

In fact, a figure playing the harp can be seen in a Chinese drawing dating way back to the 4th century BC. It’s native to Asia and is used in traditional Turkic and Russian music. The rather odd droning sound it produces has also led to it being prominent in shamanic rituals through the ages.

While you might not have heard of this metallic contraption you’ve almost certainly heard the jaw harp being played. Not only is it used in traditional and world music, but t also pops up in the popular music sphere too. In fact, everyone from The Who (“Join Together”) to the Beatles (“Fool on the Hill”) have found a place for the jaw harp on record. Leonard Cohen (“Bird on a Wire”) and Black Sabbath (“Sleeping Village”) are two other very different acts who have fallen under its spell. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give it Away” would be at least 18% less funky without it.

Traditional folk music, world music and rock’n’roll have managed to find a use for the harp — any other genres? Well, we’re glad we asked. Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, this versatile lamellophone pops up in classical music. Johann Albrechtsberger, a composer who helped Beethoven in his musical education, loved it so much he wrote at least seven concerti for the jaw harp.