Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Instrument Biography: The Harp

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

The harp is one of the oldest stringed instruments on the planet. It’s a close relative of the lyre and the psaltery, and is a plucked stringed instrument in the family of instruments called “chordophones” that includes lutes, lyres, and zithers. The lyre, which is the harp’s ancestor, is a U-shaped piece of wood with a cross bar to which the strings are attached from the base of the U. The harp is made with three pieces of wood that form a triangle, and strings of metal, gut, or twisted hair that go from the sounding board side (near the player) to the neck (at the top) where the tuning pegs are, and with the third side providing structural integrity. (There’s a LOT of tension from those strings.) Musically, the lyre and harp are used similarly—the lyre has strings of a single length, and the harp uses multiple lengths and thicknesses of strings for tuning. The larger scale and tunability of the harp was much in demand by the Middle Ages. Early harps had anywhere from six or seven to 25 strings. Metal strings were (and are) plucked with fingernails to give a harsh, brilliant tone, and gut strings make a softer sound and are played with the pads of the fingertips. By the late Middle Ages, there were two types of harp: a massive Irish harp with metal strings and a lighter Gothic harp with gut strings. But I get ahead of myself.

A Harp History

The harp is thought to have originated in Syria, and Francis W. Galpin (musicologist, early 20 th c) calls the harp the most characteristic of Sumerian musical instruments. There’s a restored specimen from around 2700 BCE in the British Museum that is thought to be the Sumerian harp of Ur (where the biblical Abraham came from). It has 11 strings. Other examples, in vestiges or images, have as many as 15 strings. The oldest Sumerian harps were bow-shaped (like a bow-and-arrow bow) and strung cross-wise. The Assyrian harps were upright and strung vertically, like modern harps. Both lacked the fore-pillar, so they might be considered lyres, if you are particular about these things. The harp appears in Egypt in the 15 th century BCE. Apparently the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers that included dancing and singing girls and their various strange instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change when these things were introduced to them and nearly all of their own ancient instruments were discarded. It wasn’t long before the standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and new forms of lyres, the new lute, and small hand drums that came from Asia became the sound of Egyptian music. With the Arabic sensibilities, Egyptian music became noisier and more stimulating as a result. (Think belly dance music.) But the Egyptians weren’t the only ones borrowing. Everyone was learning from other cultures. The Egyptians borrowed musical technology from Mesopotamia and Syria as well as from Asia; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; and the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. And once someone heard the new sounds, they had to try it too. It wasn’t long before the harp, lyre, double oboe, and hand drums were played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The bowed harp was popular in Egypt from around 1550 to 1080 BCE. With only three or four strings and a pointy bottom for support, these harps reached sizes of up to six feet tall. Harps appear among Greece’s favorite instruments, but they preferred the lyre type, especially within the cult of Apollo. Archeologists have found a Babylonian vase that shows two harps, one with five strings, thought to ward off suffering, and the other with two, thought to be the more sacred of the two styles. The second Temple of Jerusalem, built in the late 6th century BCE on the site of the original Temple of Solomon, was a place for public worship until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. In it, Jewish religious observances centered around the sacrifice of a lamb by the priests as assisted by Levites (members of the priestly class, including musicians), and witnessed by laypeople. Choirs of Levites sang the psalms assigned to the day, accompanied by harp and psaltery (see Instrument Biography: The Psaltery). As the religion of Islam gained in popularity, harps were pushed out of Arabic music. The prophet Mohamed said that music had no place in secular culture, and he specifically banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and he also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Sacred music was very specific in Islam and has remained nearly unaltered to our own time in the more conservative sects. But Muslims weren’t the only ones to ban musical instruments. Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important Catholic church history of ancient times), also disapproves of the use of ancient instruments of any kind, including the harp. He says that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery and that more than the voices was excessive. Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) was a little more lenient. He limited instruments for worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences with the others. But the harp couldn’t be quieted. By the 8 th century, harps appeared in Pictish stone sculptures in Scotland. These were the triangular (not bowed) style. The harp went from early to the late Middle Ages without much alteration. But that wasn’t true of music, so by the late middle ages, the need for greater range meant greater number of strings. It was much used in the Middle Ages as an expressive solo instrument and as accompaniment to monophonic (meaning no harmonies) singing. Its repertoire was improvised or memorized, partly because there was no notation yet (see the History of Music Notation). Jongleurs (a sort of precursor to the troubadours) in the 11 th century were expected to play an instrument in France—usually a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery or small organ. By the 12 th century, troubadours had taken the harp on as a primary instrument, and a little later, the trouvères used it too. Because music notation was in its infancy, we don’t have anything but the lyrics for most of music. Experts guess that it sounded a lot like the better-documented church music, as it was a habit, then and now, for one to borrow from the other. In France, 13 th century trouvères used various sizes of harps, each diatonically tuned (Do-Re-Mi). Chromatic harps (all the notes on the piano, black and white, played from one end to the other, one at a time) didn’t come into use until the end of the 16 th century. In the 14 th to the 16 th centuries, instruments were chosen for their ability to be loud. This distinction was called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds. During the Renaissance, the harp was pushed aside by the fully chromatic lute, but a chromatic harp, with two rows of strings, was developed in the 16 th century and revived it a bit. By 1600, the triple harp had been invented, with three rows of strings and 4 1/2 octaves. It became a useful continuo instrument in the early Baroque. By the Baroque, harps were taller, wider, and typically chromatic. (They had a separate string for each of the 12 notes in a chromatic scale.) Even more successful than the chromatic harp was the Hakenharfe, or hooked harp, invented in the Tyrol in the late 17 th century. The Hakenharfe was tuned diatonically (Do-Re-Mi) and had hooks on the neck (the top portion). The player pressed the string against the hook, causing the note to sharpen (be higher in pitch). This was the forerunner of today’s sharping levers. (There’s more about sharping levers in the structure section.) There’s a similar instrument still in use for folk music in the Czech Republic. The pedal harp was invented in Germany around 1720. All of the most commonly sharpable strings were attached to a single mechanism that could be actuated by the player’s feet. The older system of levers and hooks necessitated taking one hand from the strings to press the lever or hook, so using the feet allowed more intricate tunes. There were seven pedals, all of which could be fixed in a depressed position, facilitating a modern key signature. (Older music had a somewhat more fluid attitude about sharps and flats. Modern key signatures insist that every time you play a certain note in any octave, it will always be treated the same way.) It is the Baroque sensibility that most influenced the look of modern harps, with their classical-looking columns for the pillar. It was then that harps began to appear with the filigree and other excesses of the German Baroque. The 17 th and 18 th centuries brought other changes to the harp, like a pointed harp in England, an arpetto in Italy, and a Spitzharfe in Germany. The latter is shaped like a wing and has a soundbox between two ranks of strings—the high notes on one side of the soundbox and the low notes on the other. These were played by resting the instrument on a table or a lap, plucking the melody on the high side and the accompaniment on the other. The Classical harp was louder and capable of more virtuosic playing than the Baroque, and this is when the finesse of the new pedal harp really came into its own. Harps continue to be popular in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Asia. New schools of playing came into being, including French, Russian, Viennese, Attl, St. Petersburg, and others. Most of these have to do with differences in how the arms are held and how the thumb moves.

Harp Structure

By definition, the harp has all its strings on a single plane, perpendicular to the sounding board. The European harp includes the three parts of an equilateral triangle. One side of the triangle is the sounding board, held against the body, with the strings attached. The top side of the triangle (the pointy bit is the bottom—a harp needs a stand or some sort of foot to stay upright) is called the neck, and is where the strings attach at the other end. Tuning pegs are lined up on the neck, and sometimes, it’s curved downward or angled. Mine has a pretty swoop to it. The third side of the triangle is called the pillar. It provides strength to the structure, and contributes to the resonance. Sometimes, these have a slight outward curve, which makes it easier to reach the lower strings. The double-action pedal harp (invented by Sebastien Erard in the late 18 th century) has two pegged disks on the neck, below the tuning pegs that put a kink in the strings. If the pedal is depressed halfway, the string is sharped by a half- step (from a white key to its neighboring black key on the piano) and if the pedal is fully depressed, the string is sharped by a whole step (from one white to the next when there is an intervening black key on the piano). All strings that sound that particular note through all of the octaves is affected the same way. The pedals can be fixed to put the instrument into a particular key or they can be temporarily fixed by treading on the pedal. This invention made the harp suitable for symphonic and opera orchestras. (Erard also received patents for improvements to the piano.) The ability to play arpeggios (small step-wise leaps across several notes upward or downward) and chords (multiple notes played all at once) were not the only reasons that musicians found the harp appealing. The overtones and harmonics created by the vibrations to neighboring strings add a certain inviting charm. It’s considered to sound particularly nice with wind instruments such as flutes, trumpets, and so forth. A fellow called G.C. Pfranger invented a chromatic harp in the 19 th century, which was improved by Jean Henri Pape in 1843. Pape made the strings correspond to the white and black keys of a piano by having the “white” notes on one plane and the “black” notes on another. The two sets cross each other about half-way down. (This is the plan for what are called double-strung harps.) Further improvements came in the United States by a fellow called Gustave Lyon. Modern harps are strung with wire, nylon, gut, or silk. On a small harp, the core material is the same for all lengths and thicknesses. On larger harps, string materials are mixed to attain greater range. European-style harps have C strings tinted red and F strings tinted blue or black, which is a great aid in locating specific notes in a sea of strings. Wire strings are either silver or bronze for the same reason. Tuning pins are usually metal. The bottom end of the string is threaded through a hole in the sounding board and tied in a knot. Because the body of the sounding board is hollow, when the string is plucked, both the string and the sounding board resonate. As the sounding board responds, nearby strings are affected and produce a slight hum, creating the harmonics and overtones mentioned above. The upper ends of the strings are threaded through a tuning pin. Like other stringed instruments, a tuning pin winds the string and can be adjusted to make the notes higher or lower, as needed. Lever harps have a small lever joint that near the tuning pins that sharps individual strings when it’s flipped. The harpist must take one hand off the strings to make adjustments during performances for accidentals (sharps outside those specified in the key signature) and key changes. Some harps (like mine) have neither pedals or sharping levers and must be played in a single key signature throughout the performance. In Medieval and Renaissance harps, some strings had a braying pin attached to the tuning pin, which buzzed when the string was plucked. This fashion was no longer the style by the Baroque period and is seldom seen today, even in period music ensembles. The instrument rests between the knees or on the lap of the harpist, and against their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Scottish or Irish harps are played against the left shoulder. Only the first four fingers of each hand are used. The “pinky” finger is considered too short, and using it distorts the shape of the hand. Dynamics (loudness and softness) are controlled by how hard the strings are plucked. A fuller sound can be produced by plucking near the center of the string, and a more twangy, guitar-like sound by plucking near the bottom of the string. Tone is also affected by the skin on the harpist’s hands, by whether it’s oily or dry, and by the thickness of the callouses. Concert pedal harps have 47 strings (6 ½ octaves). They weigh about 80 pounds and are about six feet tall. The rods that effect the sharping in a pedal harp are hidden in the pillar.

The Name

The ancient instrument was also called the pectis or magadis. The latter had 20 strings, making it possible to play in octaves. The Egyptians used the Sumerian word for “bow” to name the harp although it is often called the cithara, especially in medieval documents. The English word harp comes to us from the Old English hearpe. The German word is harfe and the Dutch word is harp.

Nations of Harps

Ireland, especially the Celts, really took to the harp. There are images dating from as early as the 9 th century, including on an elegant a reliquary and a Carolingian manuscript. The harps in both images are based on Syrian models. In the 14 th century, Dante refers to the harps in Ireland, and Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius) in Germany mentions the Irish harp in the 17 th century. The English poem Beowulf has the word hearpe in it, dating from the 8 th century, although they might have meant any nearly plucked instrument (like a psaltery or a lyre). But the harp was definitely in England by the 10 th century. Chaucer’s friar enjoyed singing with a harp in “Canterbury Tales.” And his pardoner speaks of harps as the instruments of the devil. Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Welsh and the Scottish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote (like a psaltery and sometimes called the rotta). Celtic harps were part of the bard tradition, singing epic tales at banquets and other occasions. Fiddles were also popular among the Celts, and remain so today. German manuscripts of the 12 th and 13 th century include the expression cithara angelico, meaning harp of the angels. In France, harps are depicted with vièles, mostly as used by troubadours. The trouvères also used them, especially as music changed from being performed by aristocrats to being performed by the bourgeois. (Troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers, and minstrels are all forms of traveling musicians that were in vogue in the Middle ages.)


There are several less-than-traditional forms of harps. The Aeolian harp is a box with a bunch of varied-width strings all tuned to the same note. Each string, because of the differences in girth, has a different timbre. The box is placed so that the wind makes the strings sound, and the overtones become the sort of essential fairy-like sounds that we associate with the Romantic period. The Aeolian harp is probably as old as biblical times, as King David’s harp (from the Old Testament) was heard to be played by the midnight wind. St. Dunstan (d.988) was thought to have magic powers because he placed such a harp in a draft and it played all by itself. Father Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) built a modern-style Aeolian harp, and Alexander Pope introduced Aeolian harp to England in the early 1700s. You can still buy Aeolian harps in specialty music stores today. Latin Americans liked the Baroque harps brought from Spain and they were widely adopted in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela, and Paraguay. African harps tend to be without a pillar and are often bowed. Chinese harps are somewhat rare today, and are mostly zithers. The Kafir harp in Afghanistan may predate European harps and is still played today.

Famous Harp Players

Aristocratic women were often trained to play the harp as an “accomplishment” in Europe from Baroque times until the Victorian era, but it was also considered an instrument for professionals. The more famous include Nicholas Bochsa (harpist to Napoleon I), Elias Parish-Alvars, and Albert Zabel. Although part of a rather comical family, Harpo Marx was a fine harpist. Current experts include Andrew Lawrence-King, Cheryl Ann Fulton, Sylvia Woods, Andreas Vollenweider, and more.

Famous Harp Composers

There are relatively few composers who devote themselves to the harp, but Turlough O’Carolan was a fine one. Those with less of a focus, but who also admired the harp include Georges Cousineau, who, by 1782, transformed the instrument from a simple pedal harp to a double pedal harp. Piano maker Sebastian Erard (mentioned above) solved the pedal problem by the 1810s, making a harp with 6 ½ octaves. Handel, J. C. Bach, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, Dussek, and Spohr were Baroque composers who used the harp. Then Richard Wagner, Louis Spode, Mozart, Delibes, Gounod, and Massenet in later periods. You can’t ignore others, such as Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Puccini, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss. Jazz harpists include Casper Reardon, Dorothy Ashby, and Alice Coltrane. Occasionally you’ll find a harp used in popular music, such as in The Beatles on their 1967 album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Cher’s “Dark Lady, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” and Heatwave’s “Boogie nights.” Most often, Gayle Levant, a Los Angeles studio harpist played on these recordings. Go ahead. Look on your shelves. You probably already own something with a harp on the CD.


“Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint). “Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979. “A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010 “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943 “A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981