The jaw harp is known worldwide and has many names depending on the culture and region found. Very little is know about it’s origin, but there are many stories that mention them and a few ancient artifacts that prove the jaw harp has a long history associated with almost all of our ancestors.
The mouth harp is a finger plucked instrument made of a frame that holds a vibrating reed; which can be made of metal, reed, or bamboo. This instrument is held between the teeth, and the reed is played with the fingers, while its vibrations are modified by changing the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue.
Known as a “Jew’s Harp” for the last few hundred years in European cultures, this version is commonly thought of as a distortion of jaw or from the Old English word for the instrument gewgaw.
There is little evidence connecting this specific instrument to the jewish people, but the name stuck for hundreds of years. Today many people describe them as “Jaw Harps” or mouth harps.
There are other mouth harp artifacts thought to be as old as 2,500 years old found throughout Europe and Asia.
Though these artifacts are not the oldest instruments found, such as 43,000 year old flutes made from bone in Germany, these mouth harp artifacts show our long history with these instruments. Most of the metal historical mouth harp artifacts are in decay, as oxidation has made finding them in working order hard to come by.
The fact that many of these instruments are made from materials that don’t last long, such as bamboo, makes it clear that finding them as old as the ancient bone flutes mentioned above hard to imagine.