Harps are string musical instruments that are played by picking with both hands the individual strings. They date back as far as 15,000 BC and is considered one of the oldest instruments. It got its name from the Old German, Old Norse, and Anglo Saxon words that mean “to pluck.”
There are a wide range of harps that vary in type, size, and styles. Some harps are constructed in just a single piece of wood while others have used as many as 2,000 pieces. The largest varieties of harp designs can be found in Africa.
Basic Types of Harps
These harps have levers at the top of each string, located on the harp’s neck. The levers are what allow the harpist to play two different notes for each string. You can tighten or loosen each pitch to create flat, natural, or sharp notes, but, since you’re doing this with levers that require you to use your hands, there are certain limitations involved with a lever harp.
This is one of the main reasons these harps are usually used by beginning harpists, and, in fact, musicians that have passed the eighth grade typically move up to the pedal harps. Pedal harps are simply easier to play once you decide that you want to improve your ability and especially if your goal is to play in an orchestra one day.
It is possible to adjust the pitches in mid-song using the levers, but it is cumbersome once you try and play more challenging pieces of music. For this reason, all professional harpists use the harps with pedals.
These harps, naturally, have pedals instead of levers, and there are a total of seven of them, which are located at the base of the instrument and link to disks located on the neck. With each separate pedal, there are three different positions. These include high, middle or low/flat, and natural or sharp notes. With pedal harps, the harpist is able to play whatever he or she wishes to play because they allow you to play any piece of music put in front of you.
There is also another advantage to using a harp with pedals, and that is the ability to have your hands free without altering levers at some point during the song. This is not to say that the harp is an easy instrument to master; in fact, it takes a lot of time and practice to become good at it. However, pedal harps seem to be preferred by most people who play this instrument.
Ancestors of the Modern Harp
Ancient Egyptian Harps
Many of these types of harps look similar to today’s modern harps, in part because Egypt has always enjoyed harps throughout its history. In fact, it can be said that Egypt has always had a “harp culture” because of its interest in and development of various types of harps. Many of the ancient harps found in Egypt were both exceptionally large and lacked a pillar, which means it didn’t have the support that today’s instruments do.
Because of this, it is speculated by most experts that the strings on these types of harp were likely very loose-fitting and probably in the bass range as well. One of these harps was called the “benet,” which was shaped like a shovel and was eventually used as a general term for a harp, even after other types of harps were designed.
There are actually two versions of the crwth, and this type of harp is considered to be related to both the violin and the modern-day harp. Most crwth harps have a rectangular shape and two distinct sections. The back is usually flat and consists of an open upper side and a lower half that looks like a sound box. The word “crwth” comes from the Welsh language, and this particular type of harp comes in two versions. One is a basic rectangle shape with strings in the middle, while the other one has a curvy shape that is very similar to the shape of a violin.
Harpa Doppia Harps
These harps were used mostly in Italy and Spain, and they differ from the harps found today because they consisted of strings that came in three partial rows. The bass end had a row on the left that was tuned in notes going upward; think do, re, mi, and so on. The parallel row in the middle was tuned to sharps and started with upper bass notes.
If you wanted to play these sharps, you had to either reach between the left row’s strings or play those strings with your right hand. The sharped row continued into the range of treble notes, while the third row, found on the far right, began on the note where the row on the far left ended. In addition, the latter row overlapped the middle row and continued into the higher notes, meaning that you could reach the full range of musical notes with this type of harp.
Harpa doppia harps predated the triple-string harps that were developed later on, and they were used in various styles of music during this time period.
The lyre is very recognizable to most people, and it is a major relative of the modern-day harp. Often resembling a four-sided harp, the lyre’s strings look like they are open on all four of its sides. Many of them, however, do have strings that fit across the soundboard and even over the bridge. The lyres of long ago differ from one instrument to the next because they have been around since 3200 BC and have been altered by many populations. You will even notice a few similarities between the old-fashioned lyre and another type of harp called the crwth.
In roughly 900 A.D., the first form of the harp as we know it today came into existence. This doesn’t mean that harps didn’t exist before this time, it just means that the type of harp that we know today came on the scene around that time. These were the first harps shaped like a triangle, and most of them were very small and therefore portable.
This is partly because travelling musicians had to have harps that were convenient to carry with them either on horseback or on foot. The materials that the strings were made of, as well as the shape of the harp, varied depending on where the harp was made. The strings could be made out of materials such as hair, gut, and even wire, and eventually, professional harpists gained quite a bit of notoriety.
In fact, in many areas, these musicians were considered as popular and important as royalty. Harps in this timeframe could also be intricately painted and carved, and many of them contained various types of gems and jewels as well, so they were quite extravagant-looking.
Non-Pedal Contemporary Harps
These harps are uniquely shaped and have pillars that are straight instead of curved. Their sound is also a little different from harps with levers or pedals, and they create music that has the perfect sound and rhythm. They have a beautiful sound, but outside of workshops geared towards players that like these types of harps, they are rather difficult to find and to research. There simply isn’t a lot of information on them readily available.
Modern Lever/Gothic/Celtic/Folk Harps
Lever harps like the ones used today are often called neo-Celtic harps. The reason for this is that many harp experts call harps made in Welsh and Gaelic times true “Celtic” harps. Typically, a neo-Celtic harp has strings made of nylon instead of gut or wire, and harps made in the Gothic style are both more narrow and have a thinner soundboard than harps considered the Celtic types of harps.
Gothic harps can also have very pointy designs and high heads, as opposed to the rounder, lower-headed shapes that the Celtic harps usually offer. The term “folk harp” usually refers to harps that have no pedals and can include harps from areas such as Asia and South America.
Modern Wire Harps
Most harps today are made with nylon strings instead of wire strings, but wire strings are being used more and more. A lot of harp companies now make wire-strung harps, so it is easy to find instructors and even books that will teach you how to use these harps. Wire-strung harps are considered Gaelic harps, and their construction is very strong.
Of course, the technique for playing this type of harp is quite different than harps with nylon strings, but if you use your fingernails and even the pads of your fingers, the wire strings are easier to maneuver. If you want a true “bell” sound while playing the harp, try one with wire strings. Irish and Celtic music sounds spectacular on wire-strung harps, and you can see and hear them in all types of festivals and competitions all over the world.
Multi-course harps are simply those with two or more rows of strings, and most are either double- or triple-strung harps. Most harps that have two or three rows of strings have them parallel to one another; however, the Welsh triple-strung harp is a little different. On this type of harp, the two outer rows are turned a little, while the middle row is more level.
Triple harps are great because they produce a lot of unique special effects, even though they do require the player to retune them in order to change keys. Many double-strung harps used today consist of two parallel rows of strings that have been tuned exactly like each other, and they often have levers on each of the two sides. Each type of harp produces a little different sound, and if you know how to play a harp, you can try each of them out and decide which one you like best.
There is also another type of harp, known as a cross-strung harp. On these harps, there are two rows of strings and they are placed at slight angles, crossing over one another at one point. You can access either of the rows with either hand, and the way you play it is similar to playing a piano, complete with sharps and flats. However, instead of black keys indicating the sharps and flats, like on the piano, a cross-strung harp has keys in black or blue to indicate the sharps and flats.
Modern Pedal Harps
As soon as someone says the word “harp,” the image that likely pops into your head is the modern pedal harp. The harp is a beautiful but somewhat mysterious instrument because many people have never seen one except in books or movies. Harps are tall and very graceful, and, when you’re looking at one that is a concert-sized instrument, you are guaranteed to be impressed. There are smaller sizes of harps, but these are not typically what people think of when they think about these instruments.
Harps often have wide bases that flare out, and their pillars can be very decorative and fancy. Of course, this doesn’t mean all harps look exactly alike, because they can vary in the materials used to make them, the range of strings located on the harp itself, and even the exact color.
They do, however, use the same actions to change keys, broken down into two ways. The single-action pedals have two basic positions: down, which is used for natural or sharp, and up, used for natural or flat. On the other hand, the double-action pedals have three basic positions, which means any string can be played in either flat, natural, or sharp.
Concert grand harps, or concert harps, usually cover six octaves and contain 47 strings, while the lever harps, though still large and heavy, usually consist of 34 to 38 strings.
Unusual or Rare Harps
With a look that is loosely like a dulcimer or zither, bell harps have at least eight strings which are placed taut over a soundboard. You pluck its wire strings by using your thumbs, and you hold the instrument in a vertical position while swinging it in both hands. Also called fairy bells or the English harp, bell harps have shapes and sounds that are similar to bells, and they produce a rich, full sound that is quite enjoyable and even mesmerizing.
Most people, including musicians, have never seen an earth harp. They are unusually large and can be several stories high. Because of their size, earth harps are played by two or more players and have a sound that needs to be heard to be believed. The earth harp has a total of 42 strings, with the longest one being over 300 feet in length. Its sound, naturally, is very unique, and the technique used to play it is similar to rubbing your damp finger along the rim of a glass. It is definitely worth it to see and hear this type of harp, which you can do online.
Electric harps are becoming very popular, but they are still relatively unfamiliar to most non-musicians. Some acoustic electric harps have great amplification systems, which allows the listeners to hear every single note that is played. Electric harps are high-quality, high-performance types of harps and produce a very full sound, sounding like a CD that is being played in stereo. If you’re a harpist and wish to switch to an electric instrument, you can find them easily when you start your research online, because there are many different types for your convenience.
Also called harp lutes, harp guitars are a product of the 19th century, meaning that they are a fairly new type of harp. They combine characteristics of both a harp and a guitar. They have six strings, fingerboards with frets, and six extra strings found to the left of the center strings. They also have eight wire strings to the right of the center, which means that there are a total of 20 strings in a harp guitar. If you play a harp guitar, it sounds like a combination of three different instruments, a harp with wire strings, a guitar with steel strings, and a bass guitar, which makes for a very entertaining and lively sound.
Jaw (Jew’s) Harps/Blues Harps (Harmonicas)
The jaw and blues harps are not, in fact, harps in the true sense, yet no one knows for certain how they came to be known as harps. Jaw harps are small and usually made of some type of steel. To play it, you hold the frame between your teeth and a solitary strip of steel, and then you use your finger to play the notes.
Instead of playing different notes with your finger, the various notes come from the shape of your mouth while the frame is in between your teeth. In fact, if you practice long enough, you’re likely to be surprised by the number of sounds you can produce with a jaw harp. Other names for the jaw harp include a Jew’s harp, Ozark harp, mouth harp, and juice harp.
No one knows why harmonicas came to be categorized as harps, but when you consider that both the harmonica and the jaw harp are both played by using your mouth, it could give you some idea of why this occurred.
Psalteries look similar to dulcimers but are played by plucking the strings with either your fingers or a device known as a plectrum, which is similar to a guitar pick. Psaltery harps are usually triangular or square in shape, have soundboards, and the strings run all the way across the board. These harps can be played by plucking the strings, using a bow, or by hitting it with a hammer, much like some types of dulcimers. They present a lot of variety in the way that they are played, although most musicians play them by plucking the strings.
Much like the name suggests, these harps are “played” by the wind. They are called harps in the loosest terms, and they do not always have a soundboard. In addition, they come in numerous sizes and can be as large as a regular harp or as small as a keychain. In fact, any instrument with taut strings brought outdoors can be “played” by the wind, and it often produces a sound similar to a siren or horn, which catches some people off-guard. If you play a regular harp outside on a very windy day, you may experience this phenomenon, and it’ll remind you of why poems and stories often describe harps that sing on their own.
FAQs about the Harp
What is a Celtic Harp?
Also called Irish harps or folk harps, it is what most people think of when they hear the word “harp.” They are harps that use levers instead of pedals to change the pitch of the notes being played, and they can be strung with a variety of materials, including gut, wire, and even nylon. Wire strings produce sounds that are loud and sharp, while strings made of gut tend to sound like they are being muted. In fact, the sound that comes from a harp varies greatly from one harp to another, and much of it depends on how it is made and even who is playing it.
What are Harps Made Of?
Much like other orchestral instruments, harps are usually made of some type of wood, but they can also be made of fiberglass, cardboard, and even plastic. Most of the time, woods such as cherry, maple, ash, and walnut are used to make harps; however, woods such as mahogany and purple heart are also used. The soundboard is usually made of spruce, and each type of wood will produce a distinct sound in the harp being played.
What Type of Harp is Recommended for My Level of Expertise?
If you’re considering purchasing a harp, you need to consider many aspects, including:
- Lever versus pedal. If you’re in the beginning stage, save yourself some money, and start out with a harp that uses levers instead of pedals.
- Consider the cost. Naturally, if you are just starting out, you don’t want to rush out and buy the most expensive type of harp on the market. Most harps are priced on characteristics such as the type of harp you choose (student versus professional, for example) and even the number of extras you want, which can include engravings, a staved back, and the inclusion of a case.