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Harp, musical instrument in which strings, sounded by plucking, run between a neck and a sound box (also called the body or resonator). The strings run vertically down to the sound box.


Harps are made in three basic shapes: arched harps, in which the neck and body form a bow-like curve; angular harps, in which neck and body form at least a right angle; and frame harps, in which a third piece, the forepillar, is placed opposite the angle between the neck and body, forming a triangle, to brace them against the tension of the strings. The modern orchestral harp is a large frame harp having 46 or 47 strings (six and a half octaves, with 7 strings per octave); the bass strings made of covered wire and the treble strings of gut or nylon. To produce accidentals (sharps or flats) lying outside the harp's seven-note scale, the instrument has a system of seven double-action pedals, each pedal controlling one string in every octave. The harp is tuned to the scale of C-flat: when a pedal is depressed one notch, each string it controls is raised by a semitone, as from C flat to C natural; when it is depressed two notches, each is raised a whole tone, as from C flat to C sharp.

Early History

Arched harps, the most ancient of all, were known in Sumeria and Egypt between about 3000 and 2000 BC: angular harps appeared somewhat later. Arched harps survive today in Burma, parts of Africa, a few areas of Siberia, and in an isolated part of Afghanistan. Angular harps were prominent in medieval Arabic and Persian music and were played as late as the 19th century in Persia. Frame harps, almost exclusively European, appeared by the 9th century and developed in two versions, one used in Ireland and Scotland, and one on the Continent. The Irish harp, like its Scottish counterpart, was a powerful instrument with a broad, deep sound box hewn from one block of wood; a thick, strong neck; and a heavy, curved forepillar. Strung with 30 to 50 brass strings that were plucked by the player's long fingernails to produce a brilliant, ringing sound, it remained in use until about 1800. Medieval harps in other parts of Europe were smaller and lighter, with from about 7 to 25 strings, apparently of metal, and narrower, shallower sound boxes. By about 1500, gut strings came into use, and a taller form developed with a straight forepillar that could support more string tension than a light, curved forepillar. This Gothic harp is the ancestor of the folk harps of Latin America and of the modern “Irish” and orchestral harps.

Later Developments

As music in the 16th to 18th centuries gradually demanded more notes that lay outside the seven notes of the European harp's scale, attempts were made to enable the harp to produce the additional notes. These included adding a second row of strings tuned to the sharps and flats (chromatic harps), setting small hooks on the neck that could be turned to catch a string and raise its pitch a half step, and providing pedals to which the hooks (or later, rotating discs) were connected by levers and wires set inside the forepillar. Devised in 1720, the first single-action pedal harp could raise the pitch of the selected strings by a half step, allowing the harp to play in many, although not all, keys; this was achieved with the double-action harp developed in 1810 by Sébastien ?rard in Paris.

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