The Harp: How Does it Work?


Though there are many stereotypes associated with the harp, its inner workings seem mysterious to most people. This is possibly because of the ominous size of the concert (or pedal) harp, which is the most familiar, but also because there are many types of harps.

Historians believe that harps have existed for about as long as the bow and arrow, and that they may have even developed when hunters noticed the sounds their bows made. There are images of harps on rock paintings that date back to 15,000 BC, though the earliest drawing of a triangular version (closer to today’s models) dates to the early 9th century.

On a triangular harp, the bottom, slanted part of the frame acts as a soundboard and the tuning pins are usually lined up along the top.



Pedal Harps

Pedal harps (aka concert grand or orchestral harps) are the largest member of the harp family. Size can vary slightly, but they are generally pretty large. Because of the seven pedals—one for each note on the scale—you can change pitch with your feet, allowing up to three pitches per string. Putting the pedal in the higher position makes a note flat, while putting it in the lower position makes the note sharp; the middle position is natural. Having up to 48 strings, this harp is cumbersome, but has the versatility to play many genres of music.

Lever Harps

Lever harps include folk harps, Celtic harps, Irish harps, and all types of non-pedal harps. They come in many sizes from the lap harp (like the one pictured on Guinness beer) to large floor harps, which can stand up to five feet tall. These harps use levers to allow you to get two notes from each string—flat/natural or sharp/natural. When the lever is engaged the string becomes a half-step higher.

Harp variations do not stop there. Strings can be of various materials—nylon, gut, bronze, and even hair. Celtic harp strings can be wire, gut, or nylon. Folk harps usually have gut or nylon strings. The Irish harp (the national instrument of Ireland) usually has brass or bronze strings. Harp strings are usually set up in the same order as the white keys on the piano—C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, with C strings colored red, F strings colored black or blue, and the rest white or neutral.

Choose a Harp

Lever harps make good beginner harps because they come in a variety of sizes and prices, making them more affordable than pedal harps. But your choice should really depend on the type of music you want to play. For example, jazz can be played on a pedal or cross-strung harp. New age, Celtic, folk, and early music, such as Medieval and Renaissance, can be played well on a Celtic harp. Most pop music can be played on any type, but for rock and blues, you may want an electric.

As always, when buying instruments, be wary of pricing that’s too good to be true. Also, keep in mind that cost does not automatically mean quality. If you really have your heart set on playing a pedal harp, look into renting one before committing to such an expensive purchase.


Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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