Wayland Harman #3
|Wayland Harman, instrument inventor, fine wood-worker, JawHarpist, and MC of the NAJHF,
examines the essense of mouth cavity instruments in this running series.
FIVE MOUTHY INSTRUMENTS
The Jew's harp is probably the world's best known mouth cavity instrument, especially
considering the variations and diverse cultures in which it appears. It is certainly not
the only instrument to use the player's mouth and throat to control pitch. Nor is it the
world's oldest mouth instrument. The Jew's harp is almost certainly pre-dated by the mouth
bow and didjeridu. More recent innovations which fit in the mouth cavity instrument
category include the nose whistle (Trophy Music's Humantone) and my own percussive
instrument, the Clackamore. I will limit this article to these five instruments although
other sub-classes exist. (Input in this area would be greatly appreciated.)
Each of these instruments has a unique sound. The common element, the oral resonance, and
tongue shifting comes through in each making them audibly identifiable as mouth cavity
instruments. How the mouth, throat and lungs are employed varies. The following chart
shows the 5 instruments and a variety of features. From this chart, it can be seen that
while all these instruments use variations in mouth cavity size and shape, the way each is
used varies. This in turn creates the unique sound of each.
Jew's Mouth Didj Nose Clackamore
Harp Bow Whistle
Mouth cavity is essential to
create pitch variations X X X X X
Air influenced-volume can be
increased with more air X X X X
The notes available are
determined by the pitch of
the instrument X X X
Only notes in the harmonic
series of the fundamental
are available X
Harmonic series can be
created to fill some holes X X
An infinite progression
limited only by minimum
and maximum mouth size X X
Most musical instruments are recognized by the presence and relative intensity of their
harmonic series. This is why an oboe sounds different that a clarinet. One notable
exception is the flute family which produces a nearly pure pitch without an identifying
harmonic series. Certain elements of timbre and richness are still present which allow us
to tell a silver from a tin whistle.
Instruments in the mouth cavity family emphasize the harmonics individually, thus the
tones are pure, but with the drone (lowest tone and all harmonics) sounding under the
desired pitch. This result is most prevalent with the harp and mouth bow, and non-existent
with the Clackamore and nose whistle.
The didjeridu, while usually a drone with harmonic overtones, can also be played as a
melody instrument. I have a didj which produces an E flat as its normal lowest tone. By
opening my throat and essentially adding to the pipes length, I can pull this tone down
through a chromatic scale to an E flat one octave lower than the normal drone. Harmonic
accents can still be produced over the notes, however, they are most prevalent and easily
manipulated with the highest notes. Circular breathing is only possible in the highest
notes as the lower notes require my throat be open, making it impossible to
"squirt" out air with my mouth while breathing in through my nose.
Harmonics are the goal of mouth cavity instrumentalists and an understanding of the
harmonic series can be very helpful. Harmonics, alsocalled overtones, have a mathematical
relationship to the lowest tone produced by whichever vibrating system is employed. I will
start with the string of a mouth bow as this is the most stratight forward example in this
group of 5 instruments.
A string produces a certain pitch depending on its length, tension and mass (thickness).
Let's say our string is tuned to vibrate 100 cycles each second (cps), which is a
ridiculously low pitch, but a great number with which to work. The harmonic series of this
string will contain pitches whose frequency is a multiple of the open pitch of 100 cps.
Thus, the first overtone (known harmonically as the 2nd) has a pitch of 200 cps, the next
a pitch of 300 cps, then 400 cps, 500 cps, etc. Theoretically, this multiplication of the
lowest tone goes on infinitely. In practice, harmonics usually can't be utilized past
about the 16th.
It is important to realize that several of these harmonics are, in fact, octaves of the
base frequency. Doubling or halving a frequency produces octaves of that frequency. By
virtue of this doubling, the pitch of 100 cps, when doubled to 200 cps, is the octave.
Doubling again to 400 cps, then 800 cps and 1600 cps are also octaves.
Of great importance to the mouth cavity instrumentalist are the notes between the
octaves. There are no notes between the octave of the base note and the 2nd and only one
note between the 2nd and 4th. Between the 4th and 8th, three notes are available and
between the 8th and 16th, seven notes. By virtue of this relationship, it can be seen that
melodies are most easily found between the 8th and 16th harmonics. Unfortunately, most
mouth cavity instruments produce only weak tones in this higher register. These factors
create limited melodies. However, as a dedicated player, I am fascinated by those notes
which are available. The Jew's harp has the ability to cheat out a few extra notes and the
mouth bow stays very close to the harmonic scale. This is due to very different vibrating
Some mouth cavity instruments are not restricted by a harmonic series. The Clackamore and
nose whistle will produce a tone with any mouth size. The Clackamore goes even further in
that the throat can be used to add even more depth to the sounds of this instrument. This
is not possible with the nose whistle because air must pass out the nose to power the
whistle so the throat must be kept closed.
Of these five instruments, no two are alike. All 5 share the wonder of mouth adjusted
pitches, and all accomplish this differently. Each has a unique sound and requires unique
discipline. Learning to play any one of these five will make learning the others easier.
My experience has been that by becoming proficient on the other 4, my Jew's harp playing
has improved. Perhaps the most striking cross over has been using the open throat
Clackamore technique on the didjeridu to create bass melodies. Someday, I hope to use
mouth cavity techniques on traditional brass and wind instruments, however, the technical
aspects of becoming proficient enough to begin the experiment keep this ambition on a very
back burner. If you get there first, let me know what you come up with.
There is another mouth cavity instrument that I have intentionally left until last. This
one instrument has changed the world; is undoubtedly the oldest way to create music and
has been copied more times that any other musical instrument ever built. I am, of course,
referring to the human voice. This is our first instrument, the training ground for all
mouth music. Just as one instrument aids the playing of another, the voice can also be
trained by virtue of mouth cavity experience.
I sincerely hope all your journeys into the world of mouth music bring you joy and help
you bring joy to others.