What kind of instrument
is the Jew's harp?
Phons Bakx



English Jew's harp made by the Philipps-Crawshaw Harp Co.

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The Jew’s harp is a tiny harmonic instrument that has to be played in front of the mouth. It consists of a metal frame with in the middle a steel lamella, that is atttached on this frame. The other end of the lamella is free for oscillation. The player has to strike the lamella with his hand. The produced sound can be ‘colored’ in the mouth cavity, by using the throat, the breath, the tongue and the lips.

In European music history....
....the Jew’s harp rarely had occupied a position of being a credible musical instrument. One of the reasons may be that the Jew’s harp is an instrument of (Far) Eastern origin. Probably it has been originated over more than four thousand years ago in the south of China, in Yunnan, where it was developed from the ‘free reed’ or the ‘g’wâng’. The reputation of the Jew’s harp in Europe didn’t start before the thirteenth century, when it was in demand among the lower clergy. After that it started to spread all over rural Europe as a folk-musical instrument. At the time when in the nineteenth century the industrial manufacturing of the mouth-harmonica started, the Jew’s harp lost ground quickly. The Jew’s harp has been disdained very often. Maybe the inability to play this instrument fittingly may be one of the main reasons. A Jew’s harp player also needs (the most of) his incisors for playing, a subject that is of another importance when blowing on a mouth-organ. Dental care was of a lesser significance during the preceding centuries than it is nowadays. In former days someone’s teeth got lost more easily. Nevertheless, a small crowd has given significance to the Jew’s harp and her sounds, probably the most by them who understood how hard it is to master this instrument.

The Dispel of Thoughts relates to the present name of the Jew's harp in the Italian language area, ‘scacciapensieri’, which literally means ‘thought dispeller’. The Jesuit Filippo Bonanni first wrote this metaphor down in 1716 in his Gabinetto Armonico as spassa pensiere, meaning 'enjoyer of thoughts’. After that, the metaphor has been changed into the present meaning ‘thought dispeller’.

On what took Bonanni his stand for the use of this metaphor? Probably the most on the growing number of urban Jew’s harp players in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and the solitaries among them who played the instrument just for themselves as caricatures that were absorbed thoughtless by the sounds. Another ground for this metaphor could be found in the observation that Jew’s harp sounds are generated so close to the brains. We have to bear in mind, that the interaction of fluid harmonics on the etherical materiality of the mind, the thoughts and the soul, is a statement of all times and of all cultures. On the other hand, it makes the allegation more comprehensible enunciating that a player or a listener not only will hear harmonics by ear, but that he will suggest them in his thoughts at the same time.

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Information about....

the Dutch monograph about the Jew's harp

....or about Antropodium's

other publications about the Jew’s harp

in E - D - NL - F


62 reviews about Jew's harps from all over the World