Bones & JawHarp
The bones, also known as rhythm or rattle bones, are a folk instrument that, in their original form, consist of a pair of animal bones, but may also be played using pieces of wood or similar material. Sections of cow rib bones and lower leg bones are the most commonly used bones, although wooden sticks shaped like true bones are now more often used. The technique probably arrived in North America via Irish and other European immigrants, and has a history stretching back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The first documentation was in Egypt in roughly 2000B.C.E. They have contributed to many music genres, including 19th century Minstrel shows and traditional Irish and Scottish music, the blues, bluegrass, Zydeco, French-Canadian music, and music from Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and the Ottawa Valley.
Rhythm bones are typically about 12cm to 18cm (5″ to 7″) in length, but can be much longer, and they are often curved. To find a pair suitable for your hand, close your hand with your fingers laying flat against your palm. Mark on your palm where the tip of your middle finger ends. Open your hand again and the distance from the tip of your middle finger to the point it reached on your palm is the length you will want. They are played by holding them between your fingers, convex surfaces facing one another, and moving one’s wrist in such a way that they knock against each other. One method involves placing the bones to either side of the middle finger, such that approximately two-thirds of their length extends along the palm while the remainder protrudes above the fingers on the backside of the hand. The hand is held in a loose fist with the bones and the curled fingers roughly parallel to the palm, with the bone closest to the thumb gently held against the palm, running your middle finger down the spine/edge of that bone. The other bone is held more loosely allowing it to swing more freely.
There are two actions/notes the bones can make. The single click and the triplet roll. To achieve the single click, raise your arm to touch the back of your thumb to the tip of your nose. Next, move your hand straight away from you as though tossing a pebble in a pond, stopping abruptly when your forearm is horizontal with the ground. This abrupt stop will send the loose bone hurtling into the fixed bone, creating the CLACK! This can be used to follow along with any song you like. It is the most important thing you can do with the bones. Keeping time like a metronome is a big responsibility and must be done with care! The inherent rhythm in the bones is that of the Jig, which is a string of triplets. Jiggity jiggity jiggity jig!
To make this happen, cast away as before for the single, then quickly pull it back this time towards your sternum and then cast away again back to the single click and stop. The motion of returning the bones to your body will turn them upside down causing the loose bone to bounce. If you repeat this you will end up with the jiggity jiggity jig. This rhythm fits over a count of six (1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,31,2,3 or triplet triplet triplet) To fit this over a rhythm of four, make breaks in between. You will end up with clack jiggity clack, clack jiggity clack and so on. The most important thing is consistency and simplicity, and a moderate volume. The bones are very loud so need to be played respectfully, keeping your fellow musicians and house mates in mind! Remember, bones don’t require uploads, downloads, batteries or electricity and they fit in your pocket! Have fun!
The Jawharp goes by many names. Every culture has a version of the jaw harp so you can imagine all the names in all the languages! Gewgaw, Maultrommel, Koukin, Vargan, Khomus, Kumbing, Kubing, Scacciapensieri, Munnharpa, Guimbarde, Genggong, Trompe, Jue Harpes, Jødeharpe, Komys, Kupus, Khomus, Drymba, Mondtrom, Tromp, Trumpe, Èpinète, Mundharpe, Huuliharpu, Doromb, Drombulja, Morsing, Morchang, Murchanga, Hoentang, Jew’s Harp, Jaw Harp, Mouth harp, Berimbao de Boca, Crembalum, Cymbalum Orale, Bauble, Snore, Kou Xian, Mukkuri, Kjálkaharpa, Gyðingaharpa, Munniharppu are just a few!
For a long time, (first documented in 1481) it has been called a Jew’s Harp. This wasn’t meant to be offensive or derogatory. The instrument has nothing to do with the musical culture of the Jewish people, though the name confuses the issue of where the instrument comes from. Jew’s Harp is the oldest known English name and is commonly thought to be derived from ‘jaw harp’, but this name only dates back to the mid 19th century. It has been known as Jue Trompe or Jue Harpes which could have meant ‘play/toy trumpet or play harp’ and IT IS thought THAT this is the root of the misnomer.
The earliest depiction of somebody playing what seems to be a Jew’s harp is a Chinese drawing from the 3rd Century BC, and curved bones discovered in the Shimao fortifications in Shaanxi, China are believed to be the earliest evidence of the instrument, dating back to before 1800 B.C.E. Archaeological finds of surviving examples in Europe have been claimed to be almost as old, but those dates have been challenged both on the grounds of excavation techniques, and the lack of contemporary writing or pictures mentioning the instrument
In many cultures it was used as a wooing instrument, to show someone you really liked just how much you liked them with the hope they would marry you! The player could ‘speak’ their feelings for the loved one who could interpret this secretly under the nose of their parents!
The jaw harps made of natural materials like bamboo, palm wood and reed are played as ‘lip harps’ placed in the opening of your mouth. Relax your mouth and jaw as though you were to sigh or say “Hoo”. As you pluck the end of the harp draw it to your open mouth. You will notice the sound increases as you get closer to your mouth cavity. Allow the lips to gently close around the harp but not cover it.
The metal version of the jaw harp is played by placing the parallel ends of the metal against the front teeth with enough space between your teeth to accommodate the reed/metal tongue while you pluck the metal tongue with a finger.
As you pluck the reed, move your tongue slowly from the roof of your mouth down to the lowest point possible, as though you were trying to hide your tongue. Doing this slowly will help find the strong harmonic notes. When you do hear them jump out, observe where your tongue is and what shape your mouth is in. Using the vowel shapes really helps strengthen this.
The jawharp is made using a fixed reed with a fixed note. This means it only plays one root or fundamental note. How do you play a melody using only one note? We will utilise the harmonics present in the fundamental note. If you were to say the vowels A, E, I, O, U you will hear the harmonics pop out.
Now, using the soft Latin pronunciation (Ah Ehh Ihh ohh Oo) and rearrange them U, A, I, O, E (OO, AH, IH, Ohh Ehh) you will have a pentatonic scale moving from low to high. (The first, second, third, fifth, and sixth notes of the major scale become the five notes in the major pentatonic scale.)
You can practice this while you brush your teeth too!
Playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb are good songs to practice because they are basically made from the pentatonic scale and you know them very well.
Also practice this:
Oo Ih EH Ih Oo
Repeat until tired! Have fun! You can amaze your friends with this non-electric instrument which sounds like a synthesizer but requires no batteries and fits in your pocket! Play your favourite melodies. Look up other jaw harp music from around the world for inspiration. Play for a friend and maybe it will be the beginning of a lifelong friendship!