What Is a Mouth Harp?

by Cara Batema Google
The mouth harp is played against your teeth.

The mouth harp is played against your teeth.

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The mouth harp is also called the jaw harp or Jew's harp, and it is played by holding the instrument against the player's teeth while plucking the "tongue" inside the frame. The mouth harp's exact origins are unknown, but it has been traced to third century B.C. China and the Middle Ages in Europe. The mouth harp is found in a variety of cultures and is featured in traditional folk music as well as more modern music like bluegrass and rock.


The mouth harp has been found to be a part of many cultures, so it is difficult to ascertain where exactly it was first created. While it is often referred to as the Jew's harp, it has no apparent connection to the Jewish culture. The mouth harp has a variety of names depending on the country of origin, including the English "gewgaw" and German "maultrommel," meaning "mouth drum." Bamboo and wooden types of mouth harps were found in China and Asia, whereas the typical metal harps were made in England and Europe. The instrument was brought to Africa and the Americas by European traders. The instrument was used in Siberia and Mongolia as a way to induce trance or heal the sick.


Today's mouth harps are commonly made of metal. They are shaped like keys and have a metal "tongue" that is plucked. The instrument is referred to as a "plucked idiophone," meaning the instrument itself vibrates after being plucked to make sound. The mouth harp has a sound unlike any other instrument. It is classified as a twangy sound. The more the player opens his mouth, the lower the sound that is produced. The player can also change the timbre, or quality, of the sound by changing the vowel or consonant shapes he makes with his mouth and throat.

How to Play

Hold the mouth harp in your left hand (right hand if you are left-handed) with your thumb wrapped around the round part of the harp and your index finger on the other side. You want a firm grip. Open your mouth slightly and put the two metal bars extending from the round part of the harp on your front teeth. The twanger, or tongue, should be able to pass between your top and bottom teeth when you pluck it. With your index finger of your right hand, pluck the twanger by pulling it straight back. Your lips can touch the bars but not the twanger.

Musical Styles

The mouth harp has been used in many cultures, so it is a part of many styles of music. It is used in South Indian Carnatic music, but it had a sort of golden age in 18th-century Europe, when mouth harp virtuosos would play multiple instruments simultaneously. Modern mouth harp music includes electric pop, avant garde, jazz and world music. Snoopy from the "Charlie Brown" cartoons played a mouth harp, and Enrico Morricone used the instrument in his score for "A Fistful of Dollars."

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

Photo Credits

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