Musical instruments are regularly replaced by newer models, or deemed obsolete when their music fades into obscurity. Some only survive on the “musical fringe,” like the baryton, a bowed, cello-like instrument popular in the eighteenth century that is little known today, even though Joseph Haydn both played and composed for it. Other instruments are revived or reinvented through new technologies and playing techniques to keep pace with a changing repertoire or sound aesthetic. This is the case with two ancient Chinese instruments: the kouxian, a Jew’s harp with origins dating back to at least the 4th century B.C., and the sheng, a mouth organ with recorded prototypes that date back as far as the Shang dynasty (1766–1122 B.C.).
  • Top: Three hairpin-shaped bamboo Jew’s harp with case. Though this one was collected in southwest China, it is typically found anywhere from Thailand to Borneo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Major Alva R. Smith (1948.48.166). Bottom: Horseshoe-shaped Jew’s harp with the lamella inserted in the metal frame. Russia, 19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection (1889. 89.4.994)

The etymology of the term “Jew’s harp,” an English moniker with no connection to the Jewish people, is obscure but may derive from corruptions of several words: jaw, juice, jeu, jeugd, or gewgaw. Jew’s harps are found in many cultures, from Oceania and Asia to Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, and have countless local names. Evidence suggests the Jew’s harp was first developed in Asia and made its way to Central and Northern Europe around the 13th century, perhaps appearing in Gallo-Roman areas even earlier.

The instrument consists of a horseshoe- or hairpin-shaped frame that surrounds a flexible lamella (tongue). In the West, the metal horseshoe version with a separately attached lamella is best known, but in Asia and Oceania, hairpin- or leaf-shaped instruments with the lamella cut directly into the metal or bamboo frame are more common. Like the metal kouxian found in the southwest provinces of China, this type is often linked in sets of three or more graduated sizes that expand the instrument’s limited range. To play a Jew’s harp, a musician places it in front of the lips and teeth, vibrates the lamella with the hand, and then varies the position of the larynx and tongue to amplify different overtones within the mouth to create a musical line.

  • Sheng. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), late 19th century Wood, metal, reed, ivory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection (1889. 89.4.96)

The sheng (sho in Japanese) has a small, thin, metal rectangle piece with a lamella, or “reed,” cut into the surface. Each reed is tuned, fitted to the wall at one end of a bamboo pipe, and inserted, reed-end first, into a wind chamber fitted with a mouthpiece. The sheng’s multiple pipes are cut at different lengths and positioned in the wind chamber to symbolize “phoenix wings.” By exhaling and inhaling through the mouthpiece and using finger holes positioned just above the wind chamber, the reeds are activated and sounded. The wind chambers were originally made out of gourds, but today they are made of metal or lacquered wood. Having multiple pipes, this is China’s only indigenous instrument capable of playing multiple tones simultaneously. The sheng’s ingenious method of sound production spread in the 18th century, and it inspired European instruments like the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ. During the 20th century this originally diminutive instrument of about 17 pipes grew into a large family, ranging from soprano to bass.
"The sheng’s ingenious method of sound production spread in the 18th century, and it inspired European instruments like the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ."
The distinctive sounds of the sheng and the kouxian have been enhanced through the use of electronic amplification—and, in the case of the sheng, a key system—coupled with rhythmic breath control techniques. In recent years, performers have also begun using “throat” singing, a way of emphasizing overtones produced by the vocal chords, more frequently. Such additions add a greater expressivity and a new voice to these ancient instruments.

Ken Moore is the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge in the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Lincoln Center Festival presents Wang Li (Jew’s harps) and Wu Wei (sheng) on Saturday, July 23, at 8:00 pm. Learn more about the performance.