A man plays the Slovak drumbľa, a form of jaw harp. Photo: Wikipedia

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Today, the instrument called the Jew’s harp, also known as the jaw harp, is a preoccupation of two kinds of people – those concerned with upholding or salvaging traditions, and those who perform beatboxing.

The handy little device somehow finds a presence in South Indian temples as well as in the streets of Barcelona. The scintillating series of twangs echo as much in the frigid wildernesses of remote Siberian hamlets as they do in the deserts of the Thar among circles of nomadic folk-musicians.

It can be used to conjure a trance, sing devotional praises to Lord Krishna or be used to set a hip-hop crowd tapping and gyrating. It won’t be an overstatement to deem the jaw harp the quintessential Eurasian instrument, not just because of its pervasiveness but how universal and natural yet intricate and multifaceted its operation is.

The jaw harp was one of the scientifically least-understood instruments well into the 20th century. Even its classification is a subject of much dispute and head-scratching.

How would you classify an instrument that involves blowing air on a flexible vibrating metal reed mounted on a frame clutched in your jaws while vocalizing, potentially using almost all their articulation sites and using your own head as the resonating chamber?

I will resist the temptation to discuss the intriguing aerodynamics, wave physics, and bioacoustics of the playing of the device that confounded musicologists for centuries.

I will also largely forgo discussing how old the device might be, and how playing it, which involves deft labial, lingual, buccal, and glottalic manipulation, might be intimately connected to and aid our understanding of how human speech works. 

The jaw harp stores in its tiny frame an applied physicist’s research report, a linguist’s dissertation, hundreds of years’ worth of artifacts for the archeologist, and thousands of possibilities for a musician.

I will discuss none of that. What I am going to discuss, however, might borrow from all their disciplines. I intend to probe what the jaw harp has in store for the ordinary man. Did it have a practical use beyond music? Could the layman wield it? Did it mean something to the commoner? 

The beauty of a jaw harp lies in providing an immense scope to the player. The instrument itself is monotonic – it produces one kind of beat as it involves a single freely vibrating lamella fixed at one end. But it allows the user to manipulate its sound by engaging any of the muscles from the lip to the deep throat.

Players are often supposed to “speak” into the instrument. It’s a combination of a static component (the instrument’s characteristic monotone) and a dynamic component (the player’s articulation through blowing).

Although vowels and certain distinct open-nasals are predominantly employed, the range of “speech” that can be musically viable and conspicuously cast through the instrument well exceeds the range of sounds (phonemes) that we use in everyday speech and singing.  

In Siberian tradition, animal calls, sounds of water, and other natural onomatopoeia were frequently vocalized through the harp. Interestingly, even purely novel sounds that were not a part of the player’s auditory environment were included in their repertoire. The jaw harp enables this luxury by, in a sense, bringing all sorts of sounds to the same level of comprehensibility, by ridding a sound of its linguistically intelligible and discernible aspects.

In fact, the reed of the harp serves the function of a pulsating exciter. In simpler terms, the reed works in a manner similar to the vocal cords in humans, thus creating a form of speech, not merely music. This demodulation (abstraction) and partial remodulation exert a moderating effect on the brain’s recognition bias toward learned (linguistically acquainted) sounds.  

This abstraction or normalization process meant that the players’ personal information was stripped and their voice and enunciation was conveyed rid of its salient identifiers as well as prosodic attributes such as the person’s intonation.

The user “spoke” through the instrument without engaging his or her vocal cords – using the reed as a single vocal cord. Thus, in effect, the harp anonymized its player, replacing his voice with a monotone that was more or less similar for each harp irrespective of the player.

Since the jaw harp in effect served as a voice encoder and concealed the identity of its player, it constituted a ready device for making a covert auditory transmission. As a rudimentary modulator, the devices in essence worked in the same way as modern transmission media.

For example, in radio transmission, the message signal is modulated by encoding the wave’s rise and fall in the frequency or amplitude changes of another wave called the carrier. The receiver takes this wave, demodulates it, and extracts the message signal from the carrier signal. 

Analogically, the harp’s own fixed monotone that is produced when struck serves as the carrier signal that envelops or encases the input signal, that is, the vocalization emanating from the user’s mouth.

In many Turkic-origin native populations, especially the Yakut of Siberia, voice was believed to be the identity of a person, intimately tied to his or her independence, and his or her very existence itself. The jaw harp gained spiritual and transcendental importance by serving as something that protected one’s identity from being stolen by malevolent spirits and entities by concealing it.

Electric vocoders or voice-encoding devices were invented for military communication purposes. However, their precursor, our humble jaw harp, often made from whatever material was available – bamboo, wood or bone – was utilized for a different purpose, which calls for the same level of privacy and secrecy: romantic love.

From Northwest Europe to Siberia and Mongolia to Papua New Guinea, jaw harps were used in indigenous cultures by young lovers to communicate with each other secretly. This usage can be found in tribes of very distinct ethnicities with striking similarity. At least four different broad ethnolinguistic classes of people wield the instrument for this crypto-romantic purpose, alluding to independent, natural and very intuitive origination.

What is crucial to this usage is the jaw harp’s ability to be played and discerned using distinctions in timbre even if the frequency remains the same. The fascinatingly old practice remained a mystery because the West outright disregards timbre-based music and all research efforts are directed at devising a frequency-based analysis of music.

Timbre refers to the complex nature of the note that helps us distinguish between similar frequency sounds depending on the source. Although some aspects of timbre are lost and help in concealing the individuality of the user, by annulling personal vocal signatures, some of it is preserved, and these fine intricacies of the waveform can only be discerned by habituation of the auditory faculties of the recipient – such as someone close to you.

Moreover, an explicit convention can be mutually agreed upon by the two romantic partners, and then the distortion can be accomplished to keep beholders, witnesses, bystanders, and passers-by from eavesdropping on romantic conversations.

Amorous duets are also quite common in such cultures, and are often a standard courtship practice – evidenced by young people gifting, being gifted or exchanging jaw harps when they came of age. In these duets, to emphasize the male-female dichotomy, often a higher-pitch and a lower-pitch sound is utilized by the female and male respectively.

The serenading can either be complementary, a dialogue, or mere emulation, but is rarely a concert. Clenching the harp in your jaw, enclosed amid your lips, in itself could have indicated a sense of symbolic intimacy, and sharing a similar pair among a couple is hypothesized to symbolize a conjugal liaison feigning proximity – a token portal of sorts.

In other cultures, the young man would confess his love to the maiden using the harp while standing outside her home. The young lady is not supposed to look out, perhaps to adjudge the suitor solely based on their musical proposal. So the next time you see someone wolf-whistling to express their romantic interest, shove a jaw harp in his mouth and ask him to be more classy.

Music is a universal language, but few things epitomize it as literally as the jaw harp. By providing a standard medium for one to articulate multifacetedly, the jaw harp democratized music.

The identity of the player was imperceptible, and the instrument was easily fashionable from whatever was available, with each material affording an appreciably and intriguingly similar sound, a divine providence, exactly how the ancient ethnic Siberians held it – a natural bounty, as free-flowing water, that did not discriminate on influence, status, class, or gender.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.