bout the Harp

The principle components of a harp are the neck, resonator, and strings. Our earliest records of harps indicate that they were played with either a plectrum or with the fingertips. The oldest type of harp is known as the arched harp. In such instruments the neck bends back from the resonator rather than being set at a right or acute angle to it. Remains of arched harps have been found at the royal cemetary at Ur. They date from 2500 B.C. Arched harps are used in many cultures throughout Africa, Middle East, India, and South-East Asia. They range in size from small Indian instruments not more than three feet in length, to large Egyptian ones that were more than six feet tall. They also varied in their number of strings. Large Egyptian instruments had up tp ninteen strings, while smaller Egyptian instruments had less than ten strings. These harps can be further classified by the orientation of their resonator when they are played. In some arched harps the resonator is held parallel to the ground. Other harps are held so the resonator is at an angle to the ground and the strings are vertical.

A second type of harp is known as the angled harp. It is named after the sharp angle at which the neck attaches to the resonator. Angled harps can also be classified based on the orientation of their resonator. Further, one can also consider the orientation of the resonator with respect to the neck when the instrument is played. In some instruments the resonator is below the neck, while in others it is above. The Persian angled harp is known as the chang. It was transmitted to the Chinese circa 400 A.D. and was known as the k'ung-hu. In Japan the instrument was called the Kugo. From Persian the chang was transmitted West into Arabia where it was called the jank.

A third type of harp is the frame harp. They are really a subclass of angled harps that have a forepillar that connects the far end of the neck to the resonator forming a roughly triangular shape. Modern harps fall into this category. By the thirteenth century frame harps became the predominant type of harp in Europe. Although no instruments survive from this time, there are an abundance of illustrations of harps in Medieval manuscripts. This is in no part due to the tradition of depicting King David with a harp. These harps varied in the number of their strings, their size, and the curvature of their pillars and necks. However, they were all small instruments, not more than three feet tall, and had fewer than twenty strings. Many instruments are depicted with soundholes on the side of the resonator, and others have holes on the soundbaord itself. It is presumed that harps from this era were strung in either gut or metal.

The earliest extant European harps date from the fourteenth century and come from Ireland. They are less than three feet tall and are played in one's lap. The backs of the resonators of Irish harps are carved from a solid piece of willow and form a semicircular shape. The resonator is closed by the soundboard which is made from a separate piece of wood. Irish harps have a curved forepillar and neck. They also have thirty or more brass strings which pierce the soundboard and are held in place with wooden toggles. Crescent shaped metal loops are inserted into the soundboard to prevent strings from cutting into it. Harps of this type were used in Ireland into the eighteenth century.

Other surviving European harps date from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Sachs labeled them gothic harps, while other authors call them Renaissance harps. Like Irish harps, these instruments were only a few feet tall, and were held in ones lap. A significant difference between gothic harps and Irish harps is the means by which the strings were attached to the soundboard. Gothic harps used small right angled wooden pegs known as brays to fix the strings to the soundboard. When a string is plucked, one end of the bray would strike the soundboard causing a buzzing sound. Given this means of sound production, amplification is not as important as in other harps. Thus, it is not surprising to find that these instruments have narrow and shallow soundboxes. Gothic harps typically have twenty four to twenty six gut strings. They also have a long narrow pillar that is only slightly curved, which further differentiates them from Irish harps.

The European harps that have been discussed up to this point were tuned diatonically, like the tuning of the white notes on the piano. Sharps could be obtained by adding tension to a string. By the early sixteenth century the harp fell out of favor on account of the difficulty in playing chromatic notes. To remedy this, it was suggested that an additional set of strings be added, so that the harp was fully chromatic. Such harps are known as arpa doppia, or double harps, for their two sets of strings.

By the late sixteenth century harps began to increase in size, with some models resting on the floor rather than in one's lap. Some of these larger harps were more than five feet tall. At this time a third row of strings was added to the harp. The two outer rows of strings were tuned diatonically, while the inner row of strings played the chromatic notes. These were known as triple harps.

In the latter part of the seventeen century, harp makers began to experiment with mechanisms that alter the pitch of a string. Their first efforts resulted in what are known as hook harps. In such instruments a metal hook is mounted on the neck of the harp below each tuning pin. To change the pitch of a string, the hook was rotated manually so that it pushed the side of the string thus increasing its tension. Rotating the hooks by hand was quite inconvenient. Makers soon devised a pedal mechanism to pivot the hooks. Thus was born the pedal harp.

In the early ninteenth century there was a movement to revive traditional Irish music and harp playing. John Egan and Francis Hewson began to produce new versions of Irish harps. Although they looked something like traditional Irish harps, they had thin soundboards like contemporary pedal harps. They were also strung with gut strings, rather than the brass strings that were used on traditional Irish harps. The harp pictured on this page is a descendant of the harps made by Egan and is known as a lever harp. It has levers below each tuning pin, which can be flipped to raise the picth of a string by a semitone. lever harp by early music shop

Page Design Copyright 2010 Michael Berger

Clip Art Copyright 2002 Dover Publications