July 20, 2020 SASF Editorial

Journey Across the Globe with the Mouth Harp

Idiophones are a category of musical instrument that produce sound by the vibration of the instrument itself. That is, the sound isn’t produced by vibrating air, strings or membrane, but the resonance of body of the instrument itself. A particular type of idiophone is the lamellophone – a plucked idiophone. Some examples of lamellophones are the kalimba from Zimbabwe, the Chinese kouxian and the Assamese gogona.

The kouxian and gogona fall into a family of musical instruments known as mouth harps. They also go by jaw harp, Jew’s harp, trump, and numerous other regional names. The basic components of the mouth harp are the frame (usually made of iron), which is held between the player’s parted lips or teeth, and the reed, which is plucked by the fingers to produce the sound. The player’s mouth acts as a resonating chamber. By adjusting the shape of the lips or the amount of airflow, it is possible to manipulate the pitch produced, but by and large, this instrument produces one type of sound and pitch. The shape and size of the instrument determines the pitch it produces. The sound can be described as a buzzing or twanging, almost electronic – best understood by listening to it! 🙂 Here’s a video demonstrating different pitches on the morsing – the mouth harp from Tamil Nadu.

The mouth harp is a favourite for sound effects in films and videos. A whole host of effects can be created by creatively using the breath and shape of the mouth. An especially funny one is the cartoon “boing”.

The morsing is used in Carnatic music, as part of the percussion ensemble. The Rajasthani morchang is an important folk instrument of the Langa community. In Assam, the gogona is made with a bamboo frame and reed, and is played in the music of the Bihu harvest festival, usually by the women dancers.