About Harps

A Brief History of Harps


Other than percussion, the harp or its variants, are thought to be the oldest instruments known to man. The first harps most likely evolved from the hunter's bow and had a single string. As the harp developed, more strings were added but it was still in the basic bow shape. The harp then evolved into an angle harp with a sound box for greater volume. These harps had a sound box with a cantilevered arm from which the strings were attached. Pictures from ancient Egypt often depict some of these early types of harps.

A big development was to add a column much like the harps of modern times. This column allowed for greater tension on the strings and more flexibility in design.

In the early centuries, the harp was one of the most popular instruments. However, eventually the harp became less popular as music became more complex and the many accidentals were difficult to manage on the harps of that day. Harps of that period were diatonic (white keys on a piano) and therefore the more complex music was more suited to chromatic instruments (black and white piano keys).

Types of harps

There is no such thing as a"standard" harp. Harps fall into two general categories.

Category 1

In this category we differentiate between harps with pedals (also referred to as a Concert Harp) and harps without pedals (sometimes called "folk" or Celtic harps). Also there is a difference between diatonic and chromatic harps. We can use the piano to illustrate this difference. If the piano only had white keys, it would be a diatonic instrument. However the piano has white and black keys and is therefore, a chromatic instrument. A chromatic instrument allows the musician to play music in all keys.

The pedal harp, much as we know it today, the cross-strung harp and the triple strung harp were developed to enable the harpist to play music with accidentals (sharps and flats). The pedal harp became the harp of choice as a result of politics way back in the 1800s. The pedal harp has 7 pedals, one for each note in the scale. Simply by changing the position of the pedals, the harps can play each note as a sharp, natural or flat. As an example, if the harpist moves the C pedal into the flat position, all Cs on the harp will become flat. This is very convenient when playing octaves. Another advantage is that the hands are always free to pluck the strings.

Non-pedal harps have a system of semitone levers or blades, which allow the harpist to set the key at the beginning of a piece and to make minor changes during the piece. Each string has its own lever or blade. So say, the harpist needs to play an octave C#, the relevant lever or blade needs to be changed for each of those notes. Because the hads are also being used to pluck the strings, this restricts the amount of changes that can easily be made during the playing of a piece.

The cross-strung harp has two rows of strings which cross from side to side on the sound board. One row is tuned as if they were white keys on a piano and the other row as the black keys. The harpist, by playing above or below the cross, can play either the white or black, according to the requirements of the piece they are playing. This harp dates back several hundred years but is now enjoying a comeback in popularity.

The double strung harp is similiar but sometimes confused with the cross-strung. It has two rows of strings that are parallel and both are tuned as the white keys on a piano. This allows for an overlap of notes and the capability to play the same note on either row of strings. It is a diatonic instrument.

Triple strung harps have three parallel rows of strings with each of the outer rows tuned to the white keys on the piano and the centre row tuned to the black keys. To play accidentals, (sharps or flats) the harpist reaches through the outer rows to pluck the required string.

Category 2

The harps in this category are very popular and are known as non-pedal diatonic harps. Other names include Folk Harps, Celtic Harps and non-pedal harps. Most accurately it is called a neo Celtic Harp. In addition to the 'Celtic' shaped harps, these harps can also be made with a straight column that can resemble the look of a 'Concert Harp'. These harps are often fitted with a system of levers which, when engaged, can raise a string by a semitone. Each string has its own lever which needs to be moved according to the requirements of the piece.

There are small harps, designed to be held on the lap and hence are called lap harps. Larger models called floor harps are, as the name suggests, supported on the floor.

Wire strung harps can be similar in style and shape but usually have closer string spacing and are traditionally played with the fingernails rather than the pads of the fingers.

Latin or Paraguayan styled harps are light weight. The strings are usually closer together and designed to be played with the fingernails. These harps traditionally have strings that go down through the centre of the neck rather than being suspended off to one side.

Harps come in all shapes and sizes. The type of string used will depend on the harp you choose. There are three main types of strings - nylon, gut and metal wound. The strings used will depend on the type of harp.

Which Harp for Me?

The following are guidelines for selecting the best harp for you. Advice from a harp teacher and/or a harp maker is recommended.

Type of Harp

This will be dictated by the type of music you wish to play. For advanced classical music and jazz music, a pedal or chromatic harp will need to be considered. Most popular and Celtic or folk music is suited to a non-pedal harp. Latin and some early music lends itself to the Paraguayan styled harp. Levers can be added to a non-pedal harp to allow for playing in different keys. They can usually be added later as the harpist progresses to more advanced music and as their budget allows.

Types of Strings

Nylon and their composite combinations are appropriate for most non-pedal harps and the tension is usually lower. Gut strings, generally, are of a higher tension and may be desired by those who are planning on progressing to a pedal harp in the future, because the tension will be similar. This makes for easier transition to a pedal harp. Wire strung harps have a different sound from other strings and are usually played with the fingernails.

Shape or Style

With the exception of pedal harps, this is mostly a cosmetic consideration. Some people prefer the straight, round column found on pedal harps while others prefer the 'Celtic' shape with a curved pillar. With regards to the shape of the back of the harp, most people find the rounded back more comfortable to reach and more appealing aesthetically. A flat backed harp, theoretically, could give a better sound quality. However, in fact, there are many factors that determine the sound quality and a well constructed light and strong rounded back sounds just as good. Almost all of the sound quality in a rounded back harp comes from the soundboard. Both the choice of the timber used and the shaping that is done is at the discretion of the luthier (harp maker). Many pedal harps come from the northern hemisphere and are made from maple wood then stained to various colours. This choice is mostly aesthetic given the physical restraints of strength, weight and stability of the harp.

Size of the Person who will be Playing the Harp

A common misconception is that a small harp is required for a small person and that a lap harp is the best choice for a child. Many find the lap harp harder for small people to play as it is often difficult to balance on a small lap or balance it on a stand. A floor harp is usually easier to use. Lap harps are very useful for travelling. With a larger harp and/or a wide soundboard, a person's arm length and physical shape are important considerations because of the need to reach the bass strings. With proper sitting height and posture, small people can play a harp. (Many a young or short harpist has resorted to sitting on telephone books!!).

Final Choice

Costs vary but it is advisable to purchase the highest quality that your budget allows. The adage 'you get what you pay for' applies equally to harps. There are some budget-priced harps available but are not generally advisable for more serious study. However, these are often a first choice by those new to the instrument who are not absolutely sure what their future with the harp will be. New pedal harps generally range from just under $20,000 up to over $90,000. Quality non-pedal harps usually cost, depending on the size, from just under $2,000 up to about $8,000. Used harps are infrequently available and often do not cost substantially less than a new one. Quality harps do hold their value. Your dreams and aspirations will be a factor in determining which harp is appropriate for you. Consult with your harp teacher and harp maker. Some harp makers will custom design a harp just for you.

Finding Harps in Australia

Brandden Lassells at "Harps and Harps" is a font of knowledge and he has been kind enough to provide this brief overview of harps. He can be contacted at brandden@harps.com.au, (www.harps.com.au)

07 4125 8393 or 0419 692 286

PO Box 7668 Urangan QLD 4655

Showroom and workshop - 33 Rokeby Rd , Booral QLD 4655

He specialises in building custom folk/celtic and pedal harps, is a dealer for CAMAC pedal, celtic and electric harps and also repairs, restores and rents harps.

Harp Related Sites

There are hundreds of harp related sites out there on the world wide web - listed below are a few to get you started:

General harp information and further links

Other societies and conferences

Harp Retailers

There are very few physical locations to see and try harps in Australia but listed below are a number of domestic and international retailers of harps and harp music. Many of the local retailers also rent harps to beginners.

Australian harp retailers

  • Harps and Harps - specialises in building custom folk/celtic and pedal harps, dealer for CAMAC pedal, celtic and electric harps and also repairs, restores and rents harps.
  • Carter Harps - South Australian vendor of all things harp related, dealer for CAMAC harps.
  • Harps Australia - rentals and sales - serving the harp community since 1994 with over 600 instruments built.

Australian Harp supplies

Overseas harp supply retailers