Bow-Shaped and Lamellate Jew's Harps

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Both jew's harps in figure 1 are held on the left side and plucked on the right side. The bow-shaped jew's harp is plucked at the reed, the lamellate one at the end of the frame. The reed vibrates, producing the fundamental note always heard during playing.

figure 1


The bow-shaped jew's harps have to be held against the teeth, but not the lamellate ones. Why is that so? The answer holds some basic information about the functioning of jew's harps:

On bow-shaped jew's harps the reed is attached to a frame made of a forged metal stick. The stick is bowed so that its ends run parallel and very close to the reed (figure 1 left, classical form, this one is from the Szilagyi factory, Hungary). For playing the frame is held near the base of the reed, and the reed is plucked at its tip (figure 2, figure 4).

Lamellate jew's harps can have different shapes. They are made from one piece of wood or metal (mostly brass), into which the reed is cut. In most cases the frame encloses the reed (figure 1 right, showing a Vietnamese Dan Moi). The player holds the frame on the side of the reed tip and plucks the frame on the side of the reed base (figure 2).

Both types of jew's harps show only a narrow slit between frame and reed. The player's lips touch the frame and bring the sound of the vibrating reed in close contact with the oral cavity functioning as a resonance chamber (see below).

figure 2


The reed can vibrate, because the connection to the frame is a spring (figure 3, green area). This spring is - so to speak - the hinge between frame and reed. As the reed vibrates, so does the frame - the reason is physics: Actio equals reactio, each power has an equal antagonist (figure 3, red area).

figure 3

The bow-shaped jew's harp has to be held against the teeth to make the head function as a balance weight and absorb the vibration of the frame. Otherwise, the soft lips, touching the frame just where it vibrates, will muffle the joined movement and sound of frame and reed. Without teeth the jew's harp sound has no reverberation.

The lamellate jew's harp on the right functions different: The frame vibrates not where the lips are, but where it is held by the hand. The hand functions as balance weight, and without teeth the sound is not muffled by the lips.

Thus, contrary to a common statement, the teeth do not connect the sound of the instrument to the skull of the player to produce resonance. The skull functions as a mere balance weight. The lips are responsible for the sound connection, and it is the cavities of head, throat and chest that function as resonance chambers. This we learn from the lamellate jew's harps that have a clear and strong sound without direct connection to teeth and skull. 


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