An Introduction to the Harp

"I have been helping my 11 year old daughter search for information on the harp for what seems like hours.  Thank you for having such a great site.  It has answered most of her questions.  Yours is the only site we found with a labeled diagram of a harp on it.  For that we are truly grateful.  Carry on with your wonderful work, it is much appreciated." Sandy

Everything the novice needs to know about the secrets of this mysterious instrument.


A look at the basic structure...

(Photo used by permission of Lyon & Healy. Visit their website by clicking HERE)

The harp is an ancient and widely distributed instrument, and its usage ranges from pure entertainment to solo and ensemble music. The oldest extant harp, found at Ur in Sumer, dates from ca. 2600 B.C.E. and was already an elegant and sophisticated instrument. Depictions of harps from the same period have been found in the Cyclades and in Egypt, where they existed in a variety of forms and sizes for nearly 2000 years.

It is presumed that the harp moved westward from Egypt in ancient times to Greece and Italy as early as the 6th century B.C.E. The harp first appears in medieval Europe in illuminated manuscripts and carvings from the 8th to 10th century. It was very popular in Ireland, beginning in the 10th century, where it became the country's national symbol. The Irish harp has a sound box carved from a single piece of wood, a pillar that curves outward, and 30 to 36 metal strings that can be played with either the fingers or the finger nails.

Our modern orchestral harp has 47 strings and evolved through a series of formats which attempted to solve the problem of chromaticism. The final version, a "double action" harp, was patented in 1810 by Sebastian Erard of Paris and enabled the performer to alternate the pitch of each string between flat, natural, and sharp by moving a pedal between three individual positions (see illustration).

Diagram from HARPS & HARPISTS by Roslyn Rensch, reproduced by permission of Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd. Harps and Harpists is available from Indiana University Press.
 

The pedals are organized in the following order, and are easily remembered by the phrase "DidColumbus Bring Enough Food Going (to) America."

Diagram from HARPS & HARPISTS by Roslyn Rensch, reproduced by permission of Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd. Harps and Harpists is available from Indiana University Press.

The strings are lengthened and shortened (thus changing the pitch) by a complex mechanism which runs from the pedals up through the column and into the neck. There are two forked disks for each note on the outside plate that twist against the string when deployed. For example, when a pedal is moved from flat to natural, the top disk turns and pulls the note up a half-step. When the pedal is moved again from natural to sharp the note raises a second time.

Diagram from HARPS & HARPISTS by Roslyn Rensch, reproduced by permission of Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd. Harps and Harpists is available from Indiana University Press.


Facts worth knowing...

For more information on the harp, consult Ted's Harp Links

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