Mouth organ


The mouth organ is a free reed instrument composed of a variable number of pipes. These are inserted into a chamber through which the musician blows. Each pipe emits a single note, which sounds when the fingering hole is closed. 

Unlike the single reed that beats against a mouthpiece (the clarinet) or the double reed where two slats beat against each other (the oboe), the free reed, which holds on to its support on only one side, vibrates freely in a vacuum called "light" (fig.1).

Free reed instruments have a very long history in East and Southeast Asia. These are, along with the long zithers, two families of instruments that originated in these regions and which, on the whole, have spread widely there without spreading to other parts of the world. It should be noted, however, that the free reed arrived in Europe in the 19th c., probably in contact with Asia, and gave rise to instruments such as the accordion, the harmonica and the harmonium which then spread themselves in Asia.


Archaeological discoveries bear witness to the long history of mouth organs. The tomb of Marquis Yi de Zeng (Hubei, China), from 433 BC, contains, among many other musical instruments, a lacquered sheng with still bamboo pipes originally placed in two parallel lines (fig.2). In the province of Yunnan (Southwestern China) a bronze representation of a gourd-shaped sheng decorated with a bovine has been discovered (fig. 3), also over 2000 years old. This object, which has holes for inserting playing pipes, is surprisingly close to instruments still played today in Southeast Asia.  The MIM preserves for example a ken meo from Vietnam (fig. 4) and a postcard from Laos from the beginning of the 20th c. with a similar instrument (fig. 5).

(fig. 2)

(fig. 3)

(fig. 4)

(fig. 5)

Chinese sheng (fig. 6) and its equivalent Japanese shô (fig. 7) can play chords and sound as much by blowing as by breathing: the musician must therefore not stop to breathe and the sound can be continuous.

(fig. 6)

(fig. 7)

One other mouth organ well known in the Western world is the khaen from Thailand and Laos, whose bamboo pipes are placed in two parallel series and connected by a narrow wooden wind chamber. These instruments of various sizes can be very long, one of the khaen of the mim measures 2.59m! (AC 0084, fig.6). Many minority peoples in China have an important tradition of mouth organs, played during festive periods such as the end of the harvest, which for them is also the beginning of the new year.

(fig. 8)