Harman #4

Wayland Harman, instrument inventor, fine wood-worker, JawHarpist, and emcee of the NAJHF, examines the essense of mouth cavity instruments in this running series.

A jam that's left to wander freely,
Oozes out; is quite unseemly.
That's why we keep our jam about
In crystal jars, clear and stout.
So, when we play at breakfast biscuits,
No mess is made, they're quite delicious.
Jam is great, but a little structure
Keeps it off the floor. Good luck, sir.

Steel Jew's Harp


Having mastered being able to hold and pluck your Jew's harp, you automatically moved on to advanced techniques... for any attempt to alter the sound, qualifies. Depending on you experience, please consider this a check list of areas to work on, or to think about again. I'll describe things as if you've never seen or done this before.


Breathing through a Jew's harp gives it presence and makes the sound of a closed throat really stand out. Your air supply has several on/off switches with which you can control the type of sound you get.

The diaphragm serves as the principle bellows for this whole operation. Exhaling at varying pressures in a rhythmic pattern produces a rhythmic and tone change in the sound. Exhaling or inhaling in a start/stop pattern allows a time to make the closed throat sound. Alternation inhale/exhale rapidly produces a vibrato effect. Experiments in combinations of these simple patterns can lead to intricate rhythms.

The mouth, principally the tongue but also cheek and jaw, can be used as a second bellows, usually just for exhaling. The sound is very different than a diaphragm push as the size of the mouth changes rapidly here. If carried to its full extreme, the tongue ends up muting the reed further, accenting the tone shift which had just occurred.

A mild pressure from the diaphragm can be increased or lessened by alterations in mouth size. Changes must happen quickly to have an audible effect on air flow.

The back of your throat can block the diaphragm pressure and release it in a sudden burst, like saying "K". The letter "T" can be used as well, but is a bit trickier to get down. For me, the exhale mode is most effective here and the inhale mode is still in the "experimental" stages.

A rapid opening and closing of the throat, like rolling your "R"s in Spanish, produces a bassy, and difficult to control, vibrato. I mention this because someone, though not I, is probably doing something wonderful with this technique. I've never used it in public.


Tongue movement is the principle means of selecting which tone is predominate. Playing melodies well requires the joint effort of tongue and ear and air in a coordinated assembly.

The throat can also be used to alter the pitch melodically. Producing those few clear low notes with throat contractions and tongue adjustments gives the harp a "hollow barrel" sort of sound. You can close your throat off way down low, as if you had been hit in the stomach and were now choking (sound like fun?). This accents the hollowness and adds variation to the playing.

At the other extreme are the high notes produced by closing the throat with the tongue as if about to say the letter "K". This leaves the tip of the tongue free to bounce off the roof of the mouth, producing the high "LA-LA" sound. Doing this rapidly and repeatedly produces a very pleasing trill, however, will take some practice to get fast.

If you slow down the movement of the tip of your tongue, there is a high scale of notes available. This note scale is fuller than its lower relative, because the further up you go from the tonic note, the closer, and weaker, the harmonics. Adding air to this technique will usually overwhelm the high notes with the strong bass note. With practice, it is possible to allow a small amount of air to pass and accent mostly the well matched high note.

Pushing air through the reed with the tongue and cheeks is one way to allow only small bits of air in and out. Staying on any one note is difficult. Pushing the tongue into the reed produces a muted twang that can serve as a very nice accent. Be careful not to let the tip get between reed and frame by using the flat part of your tongue just behind the tip.

Another muting technique is to place a finger on the hand holding the harp against the reed. Variations in pressure and placement greatly affect the sound. This is similar to the variety of harmonics produced by any single muted guitar string, depending upon which node is used. The effect with a harp is not nearly as straight forward, but is worthy of much exploration.


Plucking the reed can be easily divided into "innies" and "outies". After that, it all becomes confusing and is as much a matter of personal preference as it is a necessity.

The OUT pluck pushes the reed away from the player before it snaps back, free to vibrate until the next pluck. This can be accomplished with any convenient part off the free hand. Usually either the pointer or index finger are used sideways across the tip, moving in a somewhat circular movement, bending at the elbow or wrist or both. The thumb can be used much the same or can pluck the reed on its own with a stationary hand.

The IN pluck pulls the reed toward the player before release. Again, a variety of methods can be used. Perhaps the most basic is to pluck the reed with a finger tip using the finger muscle much like a concert harpist plucks a string. The hand remains stationary and the thumb may rest on your cheek. Bringing the hand up, thumb resting very near the eye, allows multiple fingers to pluck in succession, a nice ability on songs with groups of short notes at key rhythmic junctures. (Keeping the rhythmic breaks inherent in a song helps the listener to identify the song more easily.)

In plucking both directions, a half moon back and forth motion is often used. This can be wrist rotation or just one digit. A more straight line approach can be had from the elbow and will usually allow more rapid plucks. Accomplished players may pluck the reed as many as 1,000 times per minute, though usually for short periods, interspersed throughout a longer piece. It's fun to watch a player who is really good at this, and it sounds quite impressive.


Singing through a harp presents a whole new world of possibilities. Having two "frequency generators" going at once allows the player to create intervals, the distance between two frequencies. The harp is highly influenced by vocalizing a pitch which either agrees or conflicts with the pitch of the harp. Furthermore, individual notes of the harp can be "played against." Matching the melody with both voice and harp at the same time can be hauntingly beautiful. Intentional mismatching can be a powerful dissonance, and with good control of vocal pitch, you can shift only slightly out of tune to create "beats"; those spots where two different frequencies reinforce each other, singing through a harp has a nice feature in that the harp's frequency helps guide and reinforce the voice. This interaction is enchanting and makes a wonderful method of meditation.

About Harps

Many of these techniques can be used with any Jew's harp, regardless of the quality of its construction. As this can vary greatly, so too will your success with things like the high notes, subtle air movements, and voice interaction. Some harps are better suited to one technique or another because of reed flexibility. Soft reeds are more influenced by voice and air, while stiff reeds are easier to double pluck. High pitched harps may be too high to play the high octave and low harps too low to get the tonic to sound clearly.

We are limited in mouth size, but limitless in variations of that precious space. I would encourage you to seek out each Jew's harp own true song; bend to it and then it will bend for you.

Peace! Wayland


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