Types of Harps: A Deep Dive into their Unique Characteristics and Uses

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Last updatedLast updated: November 24, 2023
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Harps, with their eloquent form and melodious tones, has long served as a symbol of grace and sophistication in diverse cultures around the world. From antiquity to modernity, these stringed instruments have been adeptly maneuvered by skilled harpists to produce tunes that range from subtle to symphonic, whispering notes that speak directly to the heart. This guide aims to offer a comprehensive understanding of the harp’s varied world. We shall take an in-depth journey through ten main types of harps, exploring their individual histories, distinguishing features, and specific roles within the vast musical realm.

A harp is a stringed instrument regardless of its specific type or origin. Its strings are individually tuned to different notes and plucked or strummed by the harpist to create music. Despite this fundamental similarity, harps can be incredibly diverse, each with a unique voice shaped by a blend of history, culture, and technological advancements.

Each of these harps has a unique tale to tell, a distinct identity shaped by cultural traditions, regional influences, and individual craftsmanship. Let’s delve into the enchanting realm of each of these instruments.

1. Unveiling the Magic of the Lever Harp

Lever Harps, often considered a perfect choice for beginners, are designed with a particular feature – a lever at the top of each string. This lever, when engaged, changes the pitch of the string, enabling the harpist to play two distinct notes per string. In essence, this lever mechanism allows the harpist to change the key without having to retune the harp entirely.

Since the mechanism of altering notes is manual, Lever Harps are excellent for beginners, allowing them to grasp the fundamentals of the instrument and hone their skill on simpler musical pieces. These harps come in a variety of sizes and number of strings, usually ranging in price from $2,500-$5,000 USD, making them a more affordable option for those looking to explore the world of harp music.

2. The Sophistication of the Pedal Harp

Pedal Harps are the sophisticated counterparts of Lever Harps and are usually preferred by more experienced harpists. Instead of a lever mechanism, these harps use a system of pedals to change the pitch of the strings. This shift to foot-operated pedals allows harpists to change keys smoothly, even during a piece, making it possible to execute complex musical compositions more seamlessly.

These harps feature seven pedals located at the base of the instrument, each controlling a musical note (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). These pedals are connected to discs on the neck of the harp, and by manipulating these pedals, the harpist can shift the pitch of the corresponding note on all octaves from natural to sharp or flat. This allows for a higher degree of musical complexity and versatility, which is why most professional harpists opt for Pedal Harps. A standard Pedal Harp comes with 47 strings spanning six-and-a-half octaves. The cost of a Pedal Harp ranges from $10,000 up to $200,000 USD for high-end models.

3. The Timeless Elegance of the Wire Harp

The Wire Harp, also known as the Irish Harp or Cláirseach, is an ancient instrument steeped in cultural heritage and history. Unlike other harps, this instrument is strung with metal wires, traditionally brass, giving it a unique and potent voice. The Wire Harp’s sound is characterized by a bright resonance and a sustain that lasts much longer than nylon or gut-strung harps.

Traditionally, these harps were played with the fingernails, and their resonant and sustained sound is believed to have been a great advantage in the echoing halls of old. Today, these harps continue to offer a link to an ancient musical tradition and are primarily played in the context of early music and folk traditions.

4. The Splendour of Multi-Course Harps

The term “Multi-Course Harp” refers to any harp with more than one row of strings, allowing the harpist to reach a greater range of notes without changing the position of the hand. While adding to the instrument’s complexity, this feature enables a more expansive and varied repertoire.

Historically, Multi-Course Harps were prominent in Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, particularly the Double Harp, which was popular in Italy, Spain, and England, and the Triple Harp, which found favor in Wales. These harps provided the rich polyphony sought by composers and musicians of these eras.

5. Latin American Harps: A Testament to Cultural Fusion

Latin American Harps encompass a wide range of instruments that evolved with the confluence of European and indigenous cultures. These harps are often lighter and smaller than their European counterparts, making them more portable and adaptable to various musical styles.

The Paraguayan Harp, a significant example, is well-known for its bright, lightweight sound and is widely used in folk and popular music throughout the region. The Mexican Harp, another prominent member of this group, has a more robust and full-bodied sound, making it a suitable accompaniment for mariachi music.

6. Modern Lever Harps: Gothic Harps, Celtic Harps, Folk Harps

This category comprises several types of harps revived or developed recently for use in folk music traditions and by hobbyist musicians. Gothic, Celtic, and Folk Harps are characteristically smaller and lighter than classical Pedal Harps.

The Gothic Harp, with its tall, slender shape and elegant sound, is a modern adaptation of the medieval harps used in the early music of Europe. Celtic Harps, traditionally used in the folk music of Ireland and Scotland, features a smaller, more rounded design and have a warm, intimate sound. On the other hand, Folk Harps are versatile instruments often used by beginner to intermediate level players for a wide variety of music styles.

7. The Fusion of Technology and Tradition: Electric Harps

Electric Harps represent a marriage of tradition and modern technology. These instruments can be either acoustic harps fitted with pickups (microphones) or solid-body electric instruments that produce little to no sound without amplification. They offer a wide variety of sound modification options, such as distortion, reverb, and delay effects, opening up new avenues for creative expression.

Electric Harps, with their amplified sound and extensive sound control capabilities, have found their way into various music genres, from classical to jazz, rock, and electronic music, testifying to the ongoing evolution of the harp as an instrument.

8. Adungu: The Harp of the African Great Lakes

The Adungu is a traditional harp found in the African Great Lakes region. The body of the instrument is made of wood and shaped like a halved gourd, covered with cow or goat skin. The strings, varying in number from seven to ten, are traditionally made of sisal fiber.

With its uniquely resonant sound, this instrument plays a crucial role in the region’s music, accompanying songs and dances at social gatherings, rituals, and ceremonies.

9. Saung: The Harp of Myanmar

The Saung, also known as the Burmese Harp, is a highly decorated, boat-shaped instrument considered one of the national symbols of Myanmar. This harp, often ornately decorated with gold, silver, and semi-precious gems, features a set of 16 silk or nylon strings tuned to the pentatonic scale.

The Saung plays an essential role in the traditional Burmese ensemble, providing a subtle yet distinctive voice that weaves in and out of the musical tapestry.

10. Aeolian Harp – The Harp That Plays with the Wind

The Aeolian Harp, named after Aeolus, the ancient Greek god of the wind, is a unique instrument designed to be played by human hands and by the natural breeze. Its strings resonate with the wind’s force, creating hauntingly ethereal sounds that seem to be of another world.

Usually placed in an open window where the wind can interact with it, the Aeolian Harp is more of a sound installation than a conventional musical instrument, offering a unique auditory experience that bridges the realms of nature and human artistry.

As we’ve journeyed through the realm of harps, one thing is clear: this instrument’s diversity is as rich as its history, with each type offering a unique voice that reflects its cultural origins, musical role, and technological development. Whether you’re a budding musician, a seasoned harpist, or a curious listener, the world of harps offers an endless source of fascination and enchantment.

11. The Striking Sound of the Kora: A West African Harp

The Kora, a prominent instrument in the music of West Africa, is an intriguing blend of harp and lute. With a large, calabash gourd body covered with cowhide serving as a resonator, the Kora features a long hardwood neck with 21 strings arranged in two planes. The musician plays the Kora while seated, plucking the strings with the thumb and forefinger of each hand.

Its music is distinctive and evocative, often associated with the griots, or oral historians, who use the Kora to accompany their recitations of tribal histories and stories. In more recent times, the Kora has also gained international recognition through the recordings of artists like Toumani Diabaté and Ballaké Sissoko.

12. The Enigmatic Asian Konghou

The Konghou is an ancient Chinese harp that was revived in the 20th century after being forgotten for hundreds of years. Resembling a small pedal harp, the Konghou features strings strung over a soundboard and secured by intricate bridge mechanisms.

The Konghou can be played in a variety of ways, allowing for a wide range of tones and harmonies. Its sound is often described as being similar to that of the guzheng, another Chinese string instrument, but with the added resonance and sustain characteristics of a harp.

 

13. The Delicate Tones of the Russian Gusli

The Gusli is one of the oldest known Russian musical instruments, a type of plucked zither or multi-stringed harp. Its form varies, from small, wing-shaped instruments to larger, box-like versions. The number of strings can also range from just a handful up to more than 60.

Gusli’s delicate and melodic sound was traditionally used to accompany the recitation of epic folk tales and poems. Its gentle, soothing tone continues to resonate with modern audiences, making it an enduring symbol of Russian musical heritage.

14. The Autoharp: An Accessible Harp

The Autoharp is a unique stringed instrument that was developed in the late 19th century. It features a series of chord bars attached to dampers, which mute all the strings other than those that form the desired chord when pressed.

This system makes the Autoharp an exceptionally accessible instrument for beginners, as it eliminates the need to learn complex fingerings. Despite its simplicity, the Autoharp can produce rich and full-bodied chords, making it a popular choice for folk music and in educational settings.

15. The Unconventional Array Mbira

While not traditionally classified as a harp, the Array Mbira is a unique instrument that shares some similarities with the harp family. Originating from the African thumb piano or “mbira”, it consists of staggered metal tines attached to a wooden resonator plucked by the musician’s thumbs.

The Array Mbira expands this traditional concept, featuring multiple octaves of notes in a unique layout that allows for intricate polyphonic music. Its sound is simultaneously percussive and melodic, offering a unique blend of rhythm and melody.

16. Cross-strung Harps: A Two-Handed Approach

Cross-strung Harps, as the name suggests, feature strings that are strung in two intersecting planes across the soundboard. One set of strings is tuned to the diatonic (natural) scale, while the other set is tuned to the chromatic (sharp or flat) scale.

This arrangement allows the harpist to play both diatonic and chromatic notes with each hand, opening up a new world of musical possibilities. Although it requires a different technique than other types of harps, the cross-strung harp provides an unparalleled depth of expression and versatility.

FAQs

What is a small version of a harp?

The small version of a harp is often referred to as a “lap harp” or “lever harp”. These smaller harps typically have between 10 and 20 strings, and as the name suggests, they are designed to be light enough to rest on the player’s lap. The lap harp’s portability and affordability make it an excellent choice for beginners or for musicians who need an instrument they can easily transport.

What is a full-size harp called?

A full-size harp is commonly called a “concert harp” or “pedal harp”. These harps are the largest and most complex type of harp, usually standing around 6 feet tall with 47 strings, and they are often used in orchestras or professional solo performances. Pedal harps are distinguished by their pedal mechanism, which allows the player to alter the pitch of the strings and thus play in various keys without retuning the harp.

What is the difference between a harp and a lyre?

While both the harp and the lyre are stringed instruments, there are significant differences in their structure and the way they are played. A harp is a large instrument that has its strings perpendicular to the soundboard, and they are plucked with the fingers.

On the other hand, a lyre is a much smaller instrument with strings that are parallel to the soundboard. Lyres are typically held in one hand or rested on the player’s lap, and the strings can be plucked with fingers or a plectrum. Another key difference is that the strings on a harp run directly into the hollow body of the instrument, whereas on a lyre, the strings are connected to a crossbar that is separate from the body of the instrument.

What is the most common harp?

The most common type of harp depends largely on the context. The concert or pedal harp is the most commonly seen and heard in Western classical music. Its range, expressiveness, and ability to play in different keys make it versatile for many musical genres.

However, smaller harps, such as the lever harp, are often more common in traditional and folk music. These harps are more portable and affordable than pedal harps, and they can be played in a variety of styles. With its ability to quickly and easily change keys using levers at the top of each string, the lever harp is especially popular in Celtic music.

It’s worth noting that around the world, many different types of harps are common, each with its own unique characteristics and traditions. From the kora of West Africa to the Paraguayan harp, these instruments reflect the rich diversity of global music.

The variety of harps across the globe is indeed fascinating. Their unique structures and the different techniques used to play them create diverse sounds that bring joy and evoke emotions in listeners. From traditional cultural music to modern performances, the harp continues to be a beloved instrument worldwide, resonating with its enchanting music through the ages.

Conclusion

The diverse world of harps offers a range of options for every musician, from the compact and portable lap harp to the grandeur of the full-size concert harp. Each variant has its unique characteristics, catering to different styles of music, skill levels, and cultural traditions. With its orchestral prominence, the concert harp showcases the instrument’s sophistication and range, while the lap or lever harp provides accessibility and flexibility, crucial for folk traditions and beginners. The differences between a harp and a lyre, though both are ancient stringed instruments, are significant in terms of their structure, playing technique, and the sound they produce.

The harp, in all its forms, is a testament to the longevity and adaptability of musical instruments. Whether it’s the ethereal strains of a Celtic tune on a lap harp, the complex harmonies of a concert harp in a symphony orchestra, or the vibrant rhythms played on a Paraguayan harp, this versatile instrument continues to enchant audiences worldwide. Its enduring appeal reflects not just its musical versatility but also its capacity to bridge cultures and eras, reminding us of our shared human heritage of making and appreciating music.

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