Celtic Harp FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
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WHAT IS A CELTIC HARP?
The Celtic harp also goes by the names folk harp, lever harp and Irish harp. The last is a bit of a misnomer; technically, an Irish harp would be a harp made in Ireland. Just as Celtic music often brings the bonny green isles to mind, so too does the Celtic harp. However, Celtic culture and music is actually much more widespread. The term "Celtic" is a very broad term that refers to a large number of cultures, spanning hundreds (if not thousands) of years, that essentially have only one thing in common: language. The Celts were anyone who spoke one of the Celtic languages. The Celtic languages could be seen as being in "families", with Breton, Cornish and Welsh being in one language family, and Scot, Manx and Irish being in another. Both Irish and Scot are often referred to as "Gaelic", with Irish usually being specified as "Irish Gaelic". Some Irish people prefer their language to be referred to as simply "Irish", since "Gaelic" is often more strongly associated with the Scottish culture (the word "Gaelic" is actually spelled and pronounced slightly differently is each language).
At one time the Celts could be found all over Europe, including places as far removed from Ireland as Constantinople. Nowadays, Celtic music and other aspects of modern Celtic culture survive and thrive not only in Ireland, but also in Wales, England, Scotland, France, Cornwall, Brittany, Canada and the USA.
Lever, or folk, harps, are so called because the mechanisms used to change keys are levers that are attached to the harp and push against the strings to make them shorter and thus sharpen the string.
Many people, when thinking of harps, think first of the large, ornate classical pedal harps seen on stage with symphony orchestras. Classical, or pedal, harps use pedals instead of levers to change keys. The pedal mechanism is fairly complex: pushing the pedals moves discs located at the top of the harp, which perform the same function as levers by shortening (sharpening) the strings. The advantage of pedal harps is that you can play accidentals easily and quickly, as well as being able to change keys quickly. The advantage of lever harps is that they are lighter and more portable, and can come in any size, from tiny lap harp to full-size floor harp.
The sound of an individual harp will vary greatly from one harp to another. This partly has to do with what material the harp is strung with.
Historically, Celtic harps would have been strung with wire or gut; nowadays, they are also strung with nylon. Wire has a sharper, louder sound than nylon, and tends to ring longer. Gut often has a more muted sound. Nylon strings are softer and quieter than metal, but easier to maintain and cheaper than gut. Lever harps are usually strung with a blend of nylon monofilament, nylon wound, and metal wound (nylon core). Pedal harps are usually strung with a blend of nylon, gut, and wire strings. Pedal harps are usually more tightly strung than lever harps. Lever harps tend to have more resonance. But even harps of the same size and style can sound quite different from one another, depending on who made them.
If you want to know more about all the different kinds of harps there are out there, click here.