To avoid confusion, we should begin by defining just what a harp is, since the term has been used throughout history to refer to a range of different instruments. To keep things simple, I use the definition put forth in Sanger and Kinnaird's Tree of Strings. They distinguish harps from other similar instruments based on the relationship of the string to the soundboard. A harp has strings running away from the soundboard, and exposed on both sides. Thus the term "harp" can refer to four-sided, triangular, and bow-shaped harps (common in ancient Egypt, Turkey, and other countries). A lyre, on the other hand, has strings which run across the board, and often over a bridge. The same goes for crwths, zithers, psalteries, and dulcimers.
ANCESTORS OF THE MODERN HARP
1. The Lyre
The lyre is perhaps the single instrument most commonly thought of as the main ancestor to, or relative of, the harp. One reason for this is that some lyres, as you can see on the right, strongly resemble a four-sided harp, in that the strings appear to be open on all sides, and seem to run away from the soundboard more than across it. However, many lyres are more like the one on the left, in which the strings do cross the soundboard, often going over a bridge as well. The lines between ancient instruments are often fuzzy and hard to define. You will notice, for instance, how much similarity there is between the crwth (see next section) and the lyre. The lyre is thought to have been invented by the Sumerians around 3200 B.C.
2. The Crwth
One of the most notable things about the crwth is that it is considered to be an ancestor of both the harp and/or the violin, depending on who you talk to.
The Oxford Companion to Music defines a crwth as:
"An ancient plucked and bowed stringed instrument which had a more or less rectangular frame, the lower half of which was filled in as a sound-box, with flat (or occasionally vaulted) back, the upper half being left open on each side of the strings."
One of my students has a 1904 Noah Webster, from which we get this definition (listed under "crowd"):
"[ME. Crowde, croude; W. crwth, a bulge, crowd, violin; Gael. cruit, a violin, harp.] an ancient Celtic six-stringed violin, four of the strings being bowed and two struck by the thumb in playing; also written croud, crowth, and (Welsh) crwth."
There are many variations on the word crwth (the w is pronounced "oo") - the English crowd, the Irish crot or cruit* (pronounced "crit") (*see Medieval Harps, below), and the Medieval latin chorus. Other forms of the word include croud, crowth, and crouth.
These are two examples of a crwth. As you can see, the one on the right looks more like a lyre, while the one on the left is very suggestive of a violin. Oddly enough, the violin-shaped cruit is the older of the two, dating from the 12th Century, while the lyre-like crwth is a Welsh version from the 18th C.
For more information on crwths and lyres, you can visit www.bragod.com.
3. Ancient Egyptian Harps
To the left and below are depictions of the ancient Egyptian harp. Two of its notable features are its size and lack of pillar. Since many of the harps depicted in ancient Egyptian pictorial sources are quite large, and lacking the support of a pillar, it probably suggests that they were very loosely strung and, with such long strings, likely in the bass range.
The HARPA web site contains a summary of an article featured in their newsletter on the Egyptian harp, an excerpt of which follows:
"Egypt can be considered the largest harp culture of all times. The arched harp, the archetypal music instrument of Ancient Egypt, existed from the Old Kingdom into the Greek-Roman era. In the Old Kingdom, the arched harp had a shovel-shaped form. It stood upright on the floor, with the player kneeling behind it. This harp was the Old Kingdom's only stringed instrument (ca. 2575-2134 BC), and it survived even as newer types appeared during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040-1640 BC). The shovel-shaped harp was called benet, as has been deciphered from the hieroglyphics that accompany illustrations of harps. The expression benet was also used as a general term for harp as other types of harp appeared on the scene."
(HARPA No. 31 from summer of '99 contains an article on the Old and New Kingdoms by Dr Lise Manniche, the first of three about harps and harp playing in ancient Egypt.)
4. Medieval Harps
Depending on who you talk to, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance collectively cover the period from roughly 600-1600. Harps as we know them, however, began to be common closer to 900 A.D. This is the first point for which we have direct evidence of a triangular-shaped harp, in the form of early stone carvings and pictures.
For musicians, 1600 begins the Baroque period. The mid 1400's to 1500's is well known for the madrigal style of music, while the late 1500's begins to already blur into the early Baroque style. The smaller, "Celtic" style harps were on their way to becoming less common at this point, and the status of harpers in most cultures had dwindled to that of any other common musician.
Medieval harps in general were small and portable. Travelling musicians often had to carry their instruments on foot or horseback, and the materials required to build a quality instrument were expensive. The shape and string material of harps during this time largely depended on what part of the world they were from. Welsh harps were often strung with hair; Irish harps with wire; Scottish harps with gut. Harps undoubtedly existed in other parts of the world at this time; however, here in the West we tend to focus on the British Isles and surrounding area when talking about medieval harps. Certainly, this is the area that is equated with what we would call the "Celtic" harp, since by the Middle Ages the Celtic culture was well past its peak, becoming less wide spread and more concentrated in the British Isles and some parts of Western Europe (e.g. France and Brittany). In these areas, the harp played a very significant role throughout the Middle Ages, and in some cases harpers (more specifically, bards and their equivalents) were second in status only to royalty. Harps belonging to the nobility were often quite elabourately decorated; some historical harps (such as the famous "Brian Boru" harp) show evidence of having been intricately carved or painted, and studded with precious stones and jewels.
For more information on older harps, check out the web links in our historical section. There are also numerous harp history books listed in our books section.
5. Harpa Doppia - ancestor of multi-course harps The following notes are from Laurie Riley's write-ups in her double-strung book and on the Harp Spectrum site.
" The harpa doppia was used in Spain and Italy. Unlike today's double harp, it had three partial rows of strings. At the bass end, the left row was tuned diatonically (do-re-mi etc.). The middle parallel row, tuned to sharps, began in the upper bass register. To play the sharps, one reached between the strings of the left row, or played them with the right hand. This sharped row continued through the mid-range and partially into the treble range. The third row, on the far right, began on the note where the far left row ended, thereby overlapping the middle row, but continuing much higher than the middle row. The style of music played on the harpa doppia was mostly continuo accompanimnet to other instruments. The harpa doppia was developed in response to a growing need, in the 1500s, for accidentals, as music became more chromatic. Later, triple-strung harps may have seemed to be the answer to the limitations of the harp doppia, but they have no levers, and though accidentals are easily accessed, key changes are difficult at best. "
See below for information on modern double and triple harps.
1. Modern Lever/Celtic/Folk Harps, & Modern Gothic Harps For a more detailed definition of the modern Celtic harp, see What is a Celtic Harp? in the FAQ section.
Modern lever harps are sometimes referred to as Neo-Celtic, since some people consider true "Celtic" harps to be synonymous with the medieval Gaelic and Welsh harps mentioned above, i.e. original or reproduction harps that are made in the style that the Celts would have made them in (generally with wire, hair or gut strings, and a sturdier construction than most modern Celtic harps). Similarly, a Neo-Gothic harp would be a modern harp done in the style of a Gothic harp, but usually with nylon (as opposed to gut) strings. Gothic-style harps tend to be narrower, and with a thinner soundboard than Celtic-style harps. Gothic harps also tend to be quite "pointy" and high-headed, while Celtic harps are often more rounded and low-headed. Replicas of historical harps (medieval, renaissance, or Gothic) are more likely to be strung in traditional materials. The term "folk harp" is also used loosely to refer to any non-pedal harp, especially if it is indigenous to a particular culture, and so along with modern Celtic harps may include harps from South American, Asian, or gypsy (Rom) traditions.
2. Modern Wire Harps
While wire harps today are not as common as nylon-strung folk harps, they are making a comeback. Many folk harp makers and companies now carry wire-strung models, and there are several books on wire-harp technique. Wire-strung harps are often referred to as clarsachs, or Gaelic harps. Wire harps require a fairly sturdy construction, and are usually made in a low-headed style. Historical examples would include the famous "Brian Boru", or Trinity College harp. The technique for wire-strung harps is unique, and requires a complicated system of damping certain strings while letting others ring. Most wire harp players (especially traditionalists) use their fingernails, however using the finger-pads on wire harps is not uncommon. Wire harps have a characteristic "bell-like" sound, and are particularly well suited to Irish and other traditional Celtic music. Edward Bunting would be pleased to know that, while for a long time it seemed the wire-strung tradition had died out, it is once again alive and well, and competitions and festivals much like the historical Belfast Harp Festival now take place around the world.
For more information on wire-strung harps, Cynthia Cathcart has an introduction to the instrument here. You can also browse the Gaelic harp links on the historical page, and check out the harp history books and wire-harp technique books in the Harp Books section.
3. Multi-Course Harps - Double, Triple and Cross-Strung
The term multi-course harp refers to any harp with more than one row of strings. A standard lever harp with one row of strings would be a single-course harp.
Double-Strung and Triple harps have two or three rows of parallel strings. On the Welsh triple harp, the two outer rows are tuned diatonically like a lever harp, while the third (middle) row provides the accidentals. The triple harp allows for a variety of interesting affects not available on other harps, however you have to re-tune to change keys. The double-strung harp has an ancestor in the ancient "harpa doppia" (see above), which was partially chromatic. The modern double-strung harp, however, is quite different. It has two parallel rows of identically tuned strings, tuned in a diatonic scale, with levers on each side. To get accidentals, you flip levers as you would on a regular lever harp, however since both rows of strings have levers, you can achieve chromatic effects by setting the levers differently on each side. The double-strung harp can produce many of the interesting effects of a triple harp, such as melody doubling. And as Laurie Riley points out*, because the double-strung has twice as many strings as its same-sized single-row counterparts, there is a capacity for intricate arrangements and complex harmonies, and the hands never run into one another. (*in her article on the Harp Spectrum site) Cross-strung harps have two rows of strings arranged at angles so they cross over one another (so you can access either row of strings with both hands). The cross-strung is a fully chromatic harp, with one row of strings being the natural notes, and the other row being the sharps and flats. It is most alike to a piano, where each key requires a different fingering, and the black or blue (sharp and flat) strings are akin to the black keys on the piano.
For more information on multi-course and chromatic harps, check out Harp Spectrum or the chromatic harps section of Roger Muma's site. You can also find out more about double-strung harps in particular by contacting Laurie Riley, www.laurieriley.com
4. Paraguayan & Latin-American Harps
While I have heard many beautiful recordings of music done on Paraguayan harps, and seen a couple of them at harp workshops, I'm still trying to track down some more info on these harps. Paraguayan and most other Latin-American harps have a straight, rather than curved, pillar. They have a unique sound which is different from either pedal or lever harps. Music played on these harps is often highly rhythmic. For more information, you can check out The Paraguayan Harp/El Arpa Paraguaya (bilingual site), which has a brief overview of the instrument. Also see any books or recordings by renowned harpist Rolando Ortiz. If you have any links or books you'd like to recommend, please email us at email@example.com.
The modern pedal harp is what many people first think of when they hear the word "harp". Until fairly recently, the art of making and playing Celtic and other non-pedal harps had largely died out in the West. Many people still have never seen a harp up close. Tall, graceful, with their ornate pillars and flaring wide bases, a full-size concert pedal harp (such as the one shown below) is quite an impressive sight, and its image tends to be much more widely recognized than those of its smaller, often more humble cousins.
On the left is an example of a concert pedal harp. Most pedal harps today are designed in much the same way. Some design elements do of course vary, such as colour, range of strings, materials. However the main thing that ties them all together is the mechanism used to change keys. There are two main kinds of pedal mechanism: single action and double action. Single action mechanisms have two pedal positions: up, for flat or natural, and down, for natural or sharp. So any given string can only be played in two positions. Double action pedal mechanisms, which are common on modern pedal harps, have three positions, so that any string can be played in its flat, natural, or sharp position, allowing for the maximum flexibility in playing music where key and accidental changes are frequent. A concert grand pedal harp usually has a range of 47 strings (covering over 6 octaves), and is significantly bigger and heavier than even the larger sizes (34-38 strings) of lever harp.
For more information on the development and history of the pedal harp, see Roslyn Rensch's Harps and Harpists (listed in bibliography, below).
Since the harp is one of the oldest instruments known to humankind, it's not surprising that many people have experimented with the design of the instrument and created harps to suit their own personal needs or desires. Needless to say, some of the designs were so specific or impractical that they never caught on. Some were downright bizarre, others are misappropriations of the term "harp" for instruments that are not harps at all. However, some of the more unusual kinds of harps - for instance the Aeolian and Electric harps - managed to gain a wider following. Here are a few examples of some of my favourites.
1. The Aeolian or Wind Harp
An Aeolian harp is a harp that is literally played by the wind. These "harps" do not necessarily have a soundboard, and can range in size from small trinkets to very large. You can try this yourself in your backyard - just tie some strings (you can experiment with various materials) so that they are stretched taut, (eg. between the branches of a tree, or from your porch to your roof) and preferably in a wind corridor. Be prepared for eerie siren-like sounds the next time a strong wind blows. Try alternating with long and short strings for different pitches. Many people who have played their harp outdoors have noticed this effect when a wind blows across the harp strings - it can be startling (especially when one is trying to be solemn during a wedding ceremony!), but also beautiful and haunting. No wonder there are so many old tales of harps "singing" on their own.
2. The Electric Harp
The electric harp is gaining so quickly in popularity, that it can no longer be considered a rare harp. However, it is still largely unknown to those outside of the harping community. Electro-Acoustic harps can be played like acoustic harps, but they also have an extremely advanced amplification system, where every single string has its own separate pick-up. In the Lyon & Healy model,
"Each string is sensed separately using low profile RMC string sensors, then high-performance Stereo Active Electronics mix and preamplify the separate string signals together to produce a stereo output. The amplified sound is a true reproduction of the string vibrations, making it musically expressive to both the player and listener. Each string has a specific location on the stereo panorama, producing 'moving stereo sound' when the harp is amplified or recorded in stereo." There are also electric solid-body harps that, like an electric guitar, need power and amplification to be heard.
For an examples of electric and electro-acoustic harps, you can visit the Lyon & Healy and Camac sites. Deborah Henson-Conant has a section on her site with comments on amplifying harps and electric harps. Some pioneering electro-acoustic performers include Rudiger Opperman and Alan Stivell.
3. The Earth Harp "The World's Largest String Instrument", this harp has to be seen to be believed. Several stories high, it is played by multiple players and has an otherworldly sound (recently heard on the CBC, Oct. 2000). As the site says, "There are 42 strings on the Earth Harp, the longest measuring over 300 feet. Sound is produced by a special playing technique that creates a compression wave, essentially the same physics involved in "playing" a crystal glass." The harp was built and played by members of Mass Ensemble.
The official web site can be found at
4. The Jaw (or Jew's) Harp, and the Blues Harp (Harmonica) I have sometimes run into situations in music stores, where I say that I'm looking for harp music, and they start to take me over to the harmonica section. So now I make a point of saying that I play the Celtic harp. The jaw harp and blues harp are, of course, not really harps at all, but instruments that have taken on that term for reasons that seem to be lost in history (although there are theories floating around - if anyone has heard any interesting story as to how either of these instruments got their name, feel free to let me know ).
The jaw harp is a small iron frame open at one end, in which a single strip of steel vibrates. This frame is held between the teeth and the strip of steel then twanged by the finger. The strip itself is capable of only producing one note, but the harmonics of the note become available by resonance, depending on the shape you produce with your mouth. My husband likes to play around with one of these, and he can produce an amazing array of sounds and rhythms on it, for such a simple instrument.
One idea for how the harmonica came to be called a "harp" is as follows, courtesy of an email from A. Walden: "In the original German they are called mundaeoline. Mund means mouth, and aeoline means Aeolian harp. This makes sense, they are like an Aeolian harp blown by the mouth. When Hohner began exporting them to English speaking countries, they labeled them as harp, being a rough equivalent, yet losing all meaning in the process."
5. The Bell Harp
Here is yet another case where the term harp is used out of its usual context. The Bell Harp was actually a kind of psaltery, roughly resembling a zither or dulcimer, consisting of eight or more strings stretched over a sounding-board. It had wire strings tuned to a scale and plucked with the thumbs (or with plectra attached to the thumbs) while holding the instrument vertically and swinging it in the two hands to produce undulations in the sound. It has been known in two forms: an 18th C. version originally known as "English Harp", and a hundred years later by the name "Fairy Bells". The Oxford Companion to Music gives four different possible reasons for the instrument's name: (1) its swinging was reminiscent of that of a bell; (2) its shape was similar to a section through a bell; (3) its inventor (John Simcock of Bath, 1763) wished to honour an army officer named Bell; (4) the sound it made produced a bell-like effect. In the Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments, they also mention that at least some past owners of bell harps were ringers as well, and that the arrangement of the strings and how they were played may have had some link with change ringing.
6. The Psaltery-Harp This odd hybrid combines aspects of both harp and psaltery. A psaltery usually has a square or triangular shaped soundboard, with the strings running across the board (as opposed to open strings, as on a harp). Psalteries can be plucked, bowed, or even hit with hammers like a hammered dulcimer. Psaltery-harps are most likely plucked. To see pictures of a modern psaltery-harp, you can visit Random Sound music, at www.randomsoundmusic.com.
7. The Harp Guitar
An invention of the 19th century, also called a "harp lute". As its name implies, it combines aspects of a guitar and a harp in one instrument. To see examples of a modern harp-guitar, you can check out the Sandpiper site, at www.piperharp.com. The Sandpiper harp guitar "features the traditional six guitar strings with a fretted fingerboard centered on the guitar body, six more unfretted strings are suspended to the left of the center strings, and eight wire treble strings are suspended to the right of the center strings for a total of 20 strings. When played, the sound is like the combination of a steel string guitar, a bass guitar, and a wire strung harp."
Baines, Anthony. The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Rensch, Roslyn. Harps & Harpists. Indiana University Press, 1989.
Riley, Laurie and Beth Kollé. The Double-Strung Harp. www.laurieriley.com
Sanger, Keith and Kinnaird, Alison. Tree of Strings (crann nan teud): a history of the harp in Scotland. Kinmor Music, 1992.
Scholes, Percy A. The Oxford Companion to Music, 10th Edition. Oxford University Press, 1970.
Stewart, R.J. and Williamson, Robin. Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids. Blandford, London, 1996.
Noah Webster Dictionary, 1904.
For more information on the history of the Celtic harp, check out the Historical Harp Links page and the harp history books listed under Harp Books (which also includes more detailed descriptions of the books listed above).