From Academic Kids

The harp is a chordophone whose strings are positioned perpendicular to the soundboard. All harps have a neck, resonator and strings. Some, known as frame harps, also have a forepillar; those lacking the forepillar are referred to open harps. Their strings can be of nylon (sometimes copper-wound), gut (more commonly used than nylon), or wire.

Harps are found in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and a few parts of Asia.

The Aeolian harp is not technically a harp because its strings are not perpendicular to the soundboard.

A traditional folk harp and modern concert harp. Public domain image from Websters Dictionary 1911. (Full-size image)
A traditional folk harp and modern concert harp. Public domain image from Websters Dictionary 1911. (Full-size image)

Origins of the harp

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An ancient Egyptian harp on display in a UK museum.

The harp's origins may lie in the sound of a plucked hunter's bow string. The oldest documented references to the harp are from 3000 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is mentioned in the Bible -- King David was a harpist -- and ancient epics, and even appears in Egyptian wall paintings. This kind of harp, now known as the folk harp, continued to evolve in many different cultures all over the world. It may have developed independently in some places.

The lever harp came about in the second half of the seventeenth century to enable key changes while playing. The player manually turned a hook or lever against an individual string to raise the string's pitch a halfnote. In the 1700s, a link mechanism was developed connecting these hooks with pedals, leading to the invention of the single-action pedal harp. Later, a second row of hooks was installed along the neck to allow for the double-action pedal harp, capable of raising the pitch of a string by either one or two halfnotes. With this final enhancement, the modern concert harp was born.

The European harp tradition seems to have originated in ancient Ireland over a thousand years ago. In Irish mythology, a magical harp is possessed by The Dagda.

Playing style of the European-derived harp

Most European-derived harps have a single row of strings with strings for each note of the C Major scale (over several octaves. Harpists can tell which strings they are playing because all F strings are black or blue and all C strings are red or orange. The instrument rests between the knees of the harpist and along their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp, however, is traditionally placed on the left shoulder. The first four fingers of each hand are used to pluck the strings; the pinky fingers are too short and cannot reach the correct position without distorting the position of the other fingers. Plucking with varying degrees of force creates dynamics. Depending on finger position, different tones can be produced: a fleshy pluck (near the middle of the first finger joint) will make a warm tone, while a pluck near the end of the finger will make a loud, bright sound.

The pedal/concert harp

The pedal harp, or concert harp, is large and technically modern, designed for classical music and played solo, as part of chamber ensembles, and in symphony orchestras. It has six and a half octaves (about 47 strings), weighs about 80 lb (36 kg), and is approximately 6 ft (2 m) high and 4 ft (1.2 m) wide at the widest point. The notes range from three octaves below middle C to three and a half octaves above, usually landing on G. The pressure of the strings on the sound board is roughly equal to a ton. The lowest strings are made of copper-wound nylon, the middle strings of gut, and the highest of nylon.

The pedal harp uses the mechanical action of pedals to change the pitches of the strings. There are seven pedals, one for each note. When a pedal is moved with the foot, small wheels at the top of the harp rotate. The wheels are studded with two pegs that pinch the string then they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The pedal has three positions. In the top position no pegs are in contact with the string and all notes are flat. In the middle position the top wheel pinches the string, resulting in a natural. In the bottom position another wheel is turned, shortening the string to create a sharp. This mechanism is called the double-action pedal system, invented by S颡stien Erard in 1810. Earlier pedal harps had a single-action mechanism that allows strings to be sharpened.

Lyon and Healy, Camac, and other manufacturers also make electric harps. The electric harp is a concert harp, with microphone pickups at the base of each string and an amplifier. The electric harp is significantly heavier than an acoustic harp, but looks the same.

Folk harps/lever harps

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A street musician in Quebec City plays the lever harp

The folk harp is small to medium-sized and designed for traditional music, usually played solo or with small groups. It ranges in size from two octaves to six octaves, and use levers or blades to change pitch. The most common form has 33 strings: two octaves below middle C and two and a half above (landing on G). The strings are commonly made of nylon, gut, and sometimes metal core and wrapped, which are plucked with the fingers using a similar technique to that of the pedal harp. At the top of each string is a lever; when it is raised, it shortens the string so its pitch is raised a semitone, resulting in a sharp if the string was in natural. Lever harps are often tuned to the key of B-flat. Using this scheme, the major keys of B-Flat, F, C, G, D, A, E, and B can be reached by only changing lever positions, rather than re-tuning any strings. Blades and hooks perform the same function as levers, but use a different mechanism.

Wire-strung harps (clarsach or clairseach)

The Gaelic wire-strung harp is called a "clarsach" in Scotland or a "clairseach" in Ireland. A metal-strung harp has a clear bell-like sound much prized for its sweetness and loudness.

The wire-string harp's origins go back at least prior to the 11th century. The 11th century Maedoc Book Shrine of Ireland clearly shows a harper with a triangular framed harp including a "T-Section" in the pillar (or Lamhchrann in Gaelic) indicating the bracing that would have been required to withstand the tension of a wire-strung harp.

The Irish and Highland Harps by Robert Bruce Armstrong is an excellent book describing these ancient harps. There is historical evidence that the types of wire used in these harps are iron, brass, silver, and gold. Three pre-16th century examples survive today; the Trinity College harp in Ireland, and the Queen Mary and Lamont harps, both in Scotland.

Edward Bunting was commissioned to notate the music played by the harpers at the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival. He published his first volume in 1796. He continued to collect the music of the Clairseach and published his second and third volumes in 1809 and 1840 respectively. A reprint of the 1840 edition is now available from Dover Publications.

Dennis Hempson (O'Hampsey) was the last of the harpers who played in the old style using the fingernails to pluck while the finger pads are used to damp. He also was one of the last to use the left hand in the treble. He was in his 90s at the 1792 festival and died in the beginning of the 19th century. He took the unbroken tradition of wire-strung harping with him to his grave.

Since the 1970s, the tradition has been revived. Ann Heymann has done the most pioneering work in reviving this tradition by playing the instrument as well as studying Buntings original manuscripts in the Trinity College Library. Other notable players include Patrick Ball, Cynthia Cathcart, Alison Kinnaird, Bill Taylor and others.

As performers have become interested in the instrument, harp makers ("Luthiers") such as Jay Witcher, David Kortier, Ardival Harps, and others have begun building wire-strung harps. The traditional wire materials are used, however iron has been replaced by steel and the modern phosphor bronze has been added to the list. The phosphor bronze and brass are most commonly used. Steel tends to be very abrasive to the nails. Silver and gold are used to get high density materials into the bass courses of high quality clarsachs to greatly improve their tone quality. In the period, no sharping devices were used. Harpers had to re-tune strings to change keys. This practice is reflected by most of the modern luthiers, yet some allow provisions for either levers or blades.

Multi-course harps

A multi-course harp is a harp with more than one row of strings. A harp with only one row of strings is called a single-course harp.

Missing image
Double harp

A double harp consists of two rows of diatonic strings one on either side of the neck. These strings may run parallel to each other or may converge so the bottom ends of the strings are very close together. Either way, the strings that are next to each other are tuned to the same note. Double harps often have levers either on every string or on the strings that are most commonly sharped. (for example C and F) Having two sets of strings allows the harpist's left and right hands to occupy the same range of notes without having both hands attempt to play the same string at the same time. It also allows for special effects such as repeating a note very quickly without stopping the sound from the previous note.

A triple harp features three rows of parallel strings, two outer rows of diatonic strings (natural notes), and a center row of chromatic strings (sharps). To play a sharp, the harpist reaches in between the strings in either outer row and plucks the center row string. Like the double harp, the two outer rows of strings are tuned the same, but the triple harp has no levers. This harp originated in Italy in the sixteenth century as a low headed instrument, and towards the end of 1600s it arrived in Wales where it developed a high head and larger size. It established itself as part of Welsh tradition and became known as the Welsh harp. The traditional design has all of the strings strung from the left side of the neck, but modern neck designs have the two outer rows of strings strung from opposite sides of the neck to greatly reduce the tendency for the neck to roll over to the left.

Missing image
Cross harp

The cross harp consists of one row of diatonically tuned strings and another row of chromatic notes. These strings cross approximately in the middle of the string without touching. Traditionally the diatonic row runs from the right (as seen by someone sitting at the harp) side of the neck to the left side of the sound board. The chromatic row runs from the left of the neck to the right of the sound board. The diatonic row has the normal string coloration for a harp, but the chromatic row may be black. The chromatic row is not a full set of strings. It is missing the strings between the Es and Fs in the diatonic row and between the Bs and Cs in the diatonic row. In this respect it is much like a piano. The diatonic row corresponds to the white keys and the chromatic row to the black keys. Playing each string in succession results in a complete chromatic scale.

Harp technique

Harp playing uses all of the fingers except for the pinky, which is generally too short and weak to effectively pluck a string. In order to make notation of fingerings easier, each finger is given a number, "1" for the thumb, "2" for the index finger, "3" for the middle finger, and "4" for the ring finger. Most types of harp only require use of the hands. The exception is the pedal (concert) harp, where the harpist pushes the pedals with his or her feet.

There are two main methods of classical harp technique: the French method (associated in the United States with the French-American harpist Marcel Grandjany) and the Salzedo method. Neither method has a definite majority among harpists, but the issue of which is better is a source of friction and debate. The distinguishing features of the Salzedo method are the encouragement of expressive gestures, elbows remain parallel to the ground, wrists are comparatively stiff, and neither arm ever touches the soundboard. The French method advocates lowered elbows, fluid wrists, and the right arm resting lightly on the soundboard. In both methods, the shoulders, neck, and back are relaxed. Some harpists combine the two methods into the technique that works best for them.

In addition to those techniques, which are suitable for modern pedal harps with their high string tension, in recent years some harpists have been developing another technique - the "thumb under" technique - which is more suitable for lower string tensions, as found on most historical harps. In the absence of much evidence on historical harp techniques, harpists have taken their lead from baroque performance practices, especially lute and early keyboard techniques.

As in all baroque instrumental techniques, the underlying principle is that of strong and weak articulation. The player only uses three fingers of each hand, and the thumb moves under the other fingers, rather than being held very high as in modern harp technique. The thumb and third fingers are "strong" fingers and the second finger is a "weak" finger. Scales are fingered with alternating strong and weak fingers - that is, a scale fingering could be either 1 2 1 2 1 2 or 3 2 3 2 3 2. In contrast, classical harp technique uses a fingering of 4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 going up and 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 going down. The "thumb under" technique produces a mellow, well articulated sound on harps with low string tension. It also avoids large movements of the wrists and arms, since on low-tension harps, much less force is required than on modern high tension ones.

Other harps around the world

In South America, there are Mexican, Andean, Venezuelan, and Paraguayan harps. They are derived from the Baroque harps that were brought from Spanish during the colonial period: wide on the bottom and narrow at the top, with perfect balance when being played but unable to stand independently for lack of a base. The Paraguayan harp is the most popular, and is Paraguay's national instrument. It has about 36 strings with narrower spacing and lighter tension than other harps, and so has a slightly (four to five notes) lower pitch. It does not necessarily have the same string coloration as the other harps. For example, some Paraguayan harps may have red B's and blue E's instead of red C's and blue F's. This harp is also played mostly with the fingernails.

All of Africa's harps are open harps because they lack the forepillar. With the exception of Mauritania's ardin, which is a true harp, most West African harps, such as the kora, are technically classified as harp-lutes because of their two rows of strings which are strung parallel to each other but perpendicular to the soundboard.

In Asia, there are very few harps; in that continent, zithers such as Japan's koto predominate. However, a few harps exist, the most notable being Burma's saung-gauk, which is considered the national instrument in that country. There are no harps indigenous to Oceania or the Americas.

The harp in music

The harp is used sparingly in most classical music, usually for special effects such as the glissando, arpeggios, and bisbigliando. Italian and German opera uses harp for romantic arias and dances, an example of which is Musetta's Waltz from La boh譥. French composers such as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel composed harp concertos and chamber music widely played today. [[Henriette Reni靝 and Marcel Grandjany have composed many lesser-known solo pieces and chamber music. Modern composers utilize the harp frequently because the pedals on a concert harp allow many sorts of non-diatonic scales and strange accidentals to be played (although some modern pieces call for impractical pedal manipulations).

There have been a few harpists active in Jazz and free improvisation, including Dorothy Ashby, Rhodri Davies, Carol Emmanuel, Zeena Parkins, Park Stickney, Alice Coltrane and Elizabeth Panzer.

Recommendations for beginning harpists

Harp is a rewarding instrument to learn because every note sounds good. However, there are several problems: picking a teacher, picking the harp, cost, tuning, and repairs.

A student should pick a teacher who teaches the type of music that he/she wants to play. An orchestral teacher will not be the best to teach Paraguayan sambas or Celtic dances. There are teach-yourself books for the Celtic harp.

The harp should be one recommended by a teacher or a knowledgeable harp-player.

Harps are one of the most expensive orchestral instruments. Used 3/4 sized pedal harps (the cheapest real orchestral harp) regularly sell for U.S. $8,000 or more, while new pedal harps can cost as much as a new car. One way to reduce this cost is to rent something smaller than a pedal harp, for example a lever harp with at least three octaves of range, for about U.S. $50 per month. Inexpensive lap harps that stay in tune are available for less than $300, although a case and accessories can add to the cost by several hundred more dollars.

Beginners often use an electronic tuner to tune a harp. Later, one learns to tune by ear. Most harpists carry a tuning wrench and pitch pipe or electronic tuner with their harps.

New harps or harps moved to a different climate often have to be retuned as much as several times per day for a week before they settle into a reliable tuning. This is normal, even for a good harp. If, after a couple weeks, the harp does not remain in tune at least for a day of light or no use, then it is probably defective.

Broken strings are minor damage, easily repaired by a harpist. Harpists often carry a spare set of strings in the harp's case. However, different harps use different strings, and the wrong strings can damage a harp.

Loose tuning pegs or broken levers are minor but require professional repairs. The most common serious damage to a harp is a cracked sound board or a failed glue seam. These can usually be fixed by the manufacturer of the harp or an experienced luthier.

Like all fine wooden instruments, harps are susceptible to both heat and changes in humidity. The glue in most harps melts above 60C (140F), so it is dangerous to leave a harp in a hot car on a sunny day. Sound boards in particular are susceptible to changes in humidity, and occasionally crack when the harp is fully strung and the humidity and temperature rapidly change. Ideally, a harp should be shipped with loose strings, and then left in its packing materials with the door open a crack to slowly accommodate the harp to the temperature and humidity of its resting place. Only after a few hours should the harp be set up and tuned.

As a symbol


The Coat of Arms of the Republic of Ireland

The harp has been used as a political symbol of Ireland for centuries. It was used to symbolise Ireland in the Royal Standard of King James VI/I of Scotland, England and Ireland in 1603 and had continued to feature on all English, British and United Kingdom Royal Standards ever since, though the style of harp used differed on some Royal Standards. It was also used on the Commonwealth Jack of Oliver Cromwell, issued in 1649 and on the Protectorate Jack issued in 1658 as well as on the Lord Protector's Standard issued on the succession of Richard Cromwell in 1658. The harp is also the traditionally used on the flag of Leinster.

Independent Ireland continued to use the harp as its state symbol on the Great Seal of the Irish Free State, featuring it both on the coat of arms and on the Presidential Standard and Presidential Seal - as well as on various other official seals and documents. The harp also appears on Irish coinage from the Middle Ages to the 2002 Irish euro coins.

See also: Coat of Arms of the Republic of Ireland


The harp is also used extensively as a corporate logo - both private and government organisations. For instance; Ireland's most famous drink, Guinness, also uses a harp, but in reverse and also less detailed than the state arms - Harp Lager is also produced by Guinness and uses the harp.

Relatively new organisations also use the harp, but often modified to reflect a theme relevant to their organisation, for instance; Ryanair uses a modified harp, somewhat in the form of an angel taking flight, and the State Examinations Commission uses it with an educational theme.

Other organisations in Ireland use the harp, but not always prominently; these include the National University of Ireland and the associated University College Dublin, and the Gaelic Athletic Association. In Northern Ireland the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Queen's University of Belfast use the harp as part of their identity.

External links

  • The Harp Page (http://www.tns.lcs.mit.edu/harp/) - a directory of harp-related links
  • Harp Spectrum (http://www.harpspectrum.org/) - general information about the harp
  • Clarsach.net (http://clarsach.net/) - about the Gaelic harp of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands
  • Asni: harp lore (http://www.asni.net/harplore.html) - descriptions of several types of historical European harps (with sound samples)
  • W. Rees Harps (http://www.traditionalharps.com/) - includes harp facts, repair and care information
  • La corde d'argent (http://www.harpeceltique.com/): French association for harp Celtic development.


  • Courteau, Mona-Lynn. "Harp". In J. Shepherd, D. Horn, D. Laing, P. Oliver and P. Wicke (Eds.), The Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, Vol. 2, 2003, pp. 427-437.
  • Woods, Sylvia. "Teach Yourself to Play Celtic Harp"; A companion video is available.

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