Why a jew’s harp should not ‘buzz’

One can often hear from beginners choosing a jew’s harp a wish concerning the instrument properties – it should ‘buzz’, or ‘get agitated’ only by breath, in other words, produce droning sounds without plucking the tongue with the hand. Sometimes this wish is the main or even the only one... This material will clearly show how and why ‘buzzing’ deteriorate the acoustic properties of a jew’s harp. It is worthwhile mentioning at once that a normal jew’s harp just does not need to buzz; for this method of sound production and play there are wind instruments including the nearest relatives of jew’s harps, mouth harps.

Why the jew’s harp buzz?

Buzzing is enabled by one certain feature of the instrument structure: its tongue must be bent away from the frame plane. If it is located strictly parallel to the frame, right between the decks edges, one cannot agitate it even by strongest breath.

Why jew’s harp with a bent tongue, a buzzing one, is worse than a straight one?

When the tongue is bent, the center line of oscillation is displaced, and this causes a number of negative effects, as follows:


Let’s take a jew’s harp with a normal tongue (a straight, right placed one), and normal sound: Варган с ровным язычком

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It is no use to blow into it, as it should be.
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Let’s bend the tongue slightly away: Варган с отогнутым язычком

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Hurray, it buzzing!
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And the most ‘delicious’: a sound sample of the same jew’s harp with a badly bent tongue:
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The timbre is split, it is very hard to emphasize overtones, the sound fades away actually right away.

It is also possible to buzz with a right jew’s harp!

A permanently bent tongue is a defect, such jew’s harp will never produce a smooth tone. But it is quite possible to buzz with a normal jew’s harp without spoiling the instrument: you need just to press on the tongue and temporarily bend it slightly away.

It should be done as close to the tongue attachment point as possible, with your nail; then the oscillations will be minimally damped.

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