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Genesis of the Harp

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What is a harp?

The harp, which, perhaps of all musical instruments, is that which has passed through the greatest variety of form. 4

━ Anne Walbank Buckland

From African origins and perhaps inspired by the sound of a plucked string along the hunter’s bow (Fig. 1.1), the strings of a weaving loom, or maybe even the frame of a house 5, harp-like instruments developed idiosyncratically throughout the world. Harps are acknowledged as the first documented wooden instruments, with surviving examples from 3,000 BCE. 6

Throughout this dissertation, a liberal definition of the harp will be used, including instruments such as the Ethiopian krar and Chinese guzheng, which some argue are lyres and zithers/psaltries respectively, rather than variations of harp.

The Ancient Greek word ψαλτήριον (psaltērion) means "stringed instrument, psaltery, harp," derived from the verb ψάλλω (psallō), "to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, twitch” 7, demonstrating the ancient overlap between these instruments. Another harp nomenclature variation is the bridge-harp, a term coined by Roderic Knight (examples are the kora, or arguably the guzheng) where the strings pass over a bridge that transmits soundwaves to the soundboard.

Since their construction, tone, plucking action, intention of expression, and position in society are recognizably harp-like, instruments such as lyres, psaltries/zithers, and bridge harps will be examined as valuable sources of artistic expression for modern harpists and composers.

Strictly speaking, harps include a neck, resonator and strings. By this definition, there are three types of true harp: arched, angular and frame, with great variation in size, materials used and manner of playing.

The oldest of these is the arched harp, also called a 'bow harp' or ‘open harp,’ and resembles a hunter’s bow with additional strings and a resonator (often a gourd) attached. We find examples of arched harps all over the world, from Africa to India to Asia, where the Burmese harp (Fig. 1.2) is still played and held in high regard today.

To allow a greater range of strings and increased tuning stability, an additional arm was attached between strings and resonator to create a “V”: this type is known as the 'angle/angular harp’ (Fig. 1.3).  Angular harps emerged around 1900 BCE-1700BCE, and by 1400BCE already had up to 20 strings, in contrast to arched harps’ more limited range of less than 10. 8
Angular harps can be held horizontally or vertically: the former generally has fewer strings and is played with a plectrum while the latter has more strings and is plucked with fingers. (Ibid.)

Sasonian Empire

Fig. 1.1 Sasanian Empire (224–651 CE) illustration: hunting scene from the tale of Bahram Gur and Azadeh, reinforcing the connection between the hunter’s now and the harp (Ibid.)

Burmese harp

Fig. 1.2 Burmese harp (saung-gauk)

Fig. 1.3 Fikret Karakaya’s reconstruction of a Turkish angular harp

Fig. 1.3 Fikret Karakaya’s reconstruction of a Turkish angular harp

The angular harp was the longest living type of instrument ever invented…it was a kind of “grand piano” of antiquity. 9

━ Bo Lawergren

Later, in Europe we find a pillar, or third side, added to the harp, creating the familiar ‘frame harp’ or ‘triangular harp’ (Fig. 1.4) around the 9th century CE. 10 This shape has become the main harp design we find today in pedal and lever harps, due to great stability in terms of tuning, wide range of strings/pitches, and its ability to stand upright on its own.

In all cases, harps are made primarily of wood, although we also see extensive use of metal hardware and strings (bronze, steel, gold, silver), animal skin soundboards and toggles, gut, hair and silk strings. Modern harps also make use of various plastics in the form of hardware, glue, nylon strings, carbon bodies and strings, fiberglass sound boxes, and even electronics. 

Experimentation in harp design is an ancient art, as we hear from Peter Pringle:

Fig. 1.4 A reconstructed medieval European harp by Estonian luthier Roland Suits

Fig. 1.4 A reconstructed medieval European harp by Estonian luthier Roland Suits


Ancient string makers guarded their recipes with all the secrecy of modern industrialists. They added all sorts of things to their binders - powdered silver and gold, minerals like rock crystal, jade, lapis - in order to impart certain sonic properties to the finished product. Much of that was, I believe, based on the rather romantic, folkloric notion that the music would ultimately take on the metaphysical qualities of the substance used. With powdered pearls in your silk binders, the string would manifest the characteristics of the sea, a small amount of the dried and finely ground heart of tiger would make your music more powerful and compelling.  Interestingly, some of the substances they used (such as powdered metals) actually did change the acoustic properties of the string! 11

━ Peter Pringle

String tension and methods of changing pitches along a single string vary greatly.
High-tension pedal harps use 7 pedals to sharpen, flatten or neutralize the pitch of a string.
Medium-tension neo-Celtic harps often use levers or blades to alter the pitch a half step.
Low-tension arched harps string-stop by pinching strings with fingers or leather rings attached to the neck to alter the pitch.
Latin American harps and koras have lately been using guitar machine heads to alter the pitch. 
Later we will explore further variations that facilitate range of pitch, such as the Welsh harp’s triple rows of strings.


Where are oldest harps found?

Although the early harp is often associated with Celtic culture, in fact, the harp was known and celebrated long before the Celts adopted it as their emblematic instrument.

One of the oldest musical discoveries ever shows a harp-like instrument on rock paintings dating back to c.15,000 BCE in France 12, as well as rock etchings from c.4000 BCE in what is present-day Israel (Fig. 1.5).

Harps appear in paintings from 4000 BC in Egypt 13; harp is the most frequently depicted instrument in ancient Egyptian art, demonstrating its high status.14 

The famous Harp of Ur in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) is an extremely rare physically surviving instrument, and is now over 5,500 years old.

The harp traveled widely, spanning out in all directions from African origins.

Lily Press 15 observes representations of ancient harps in Greece, North Africa (especially Egypt), what is now called the Middle East, Afghanistan, India, China, and Burma.

The Silk Road was a key route of dissemination for the harp, as were later roads of influence via trade and conquest such as Muslim presence in North Africa and Spain.

Spiritual journeys also played a role; the harp was introduced to Asia mainly via Bhuddist teachings. 16

The harp also evolved wherever it found itself. Although the most ancient traditions in harp are found in Africa, where more than 100 harp traditions have been documented 17, examples of possible indigenous harp creation can be found in the steppe region:

Steppe harps flourished ca 500 BC, long before the Silk Road was established. They never reached the heartland of China and had no influence on the diffusion of vertical harps that began when the Silk Road was established. 18

━ Bo Lawergren

1.5 Rock Etching

Fig. 1.5 Rock etchings featuring lyre players, discovered in the Negev desert (present-day Israel), dated c. 4000 BC to 323 BCE-330 CE (Batya Bayer, The Biblical Nevel, Yuval 1, 1968)


What construction variations do historical harps reveal, and what kind of harps do we find today?

Physical specimens of historical harps unfortunately rarely survive, for many reasons; generally delicate, they are easily damaged; they self-implode due to string tension; they are made of degradable materials such as wood, they have been the target of deliberate destruction, as during the Elizabethan era in Ireland.

We often rely on iconic representations of harps, such as paintings, sculptures and bas-reliefs, to reconstruct historical harps. This can result in fanciful or inaccurate reconstructions; fortunately, there are some real survivors, such as the Harp of Ur and the 14th century Brian Boru harp of Ireland.

Following is a brief comparison of the most common types of harp, past and present, that we are aware of worldwide.

1.3a African/Classical world harps

Musical bows consist of a string stretched between the two ends of a flexible stave, and are the most basic type of arched harp, identified above as the oldest, original harp. There are three variations: bows with a separate resonator; bows with attached resonators (Fig. 1.6); and mouth bows, which use changes in the player’s embouchure to affect resonance. 19 These bows are sounded by plucking or striking the string, can be bowed with a friction stick, scraped with a rattle stick, or sounded by exhaling and inhaling across the stave. 20 Often, a buzzing mechanism is incorporated, which we will later encounter in the much younger Gothic European harps as well.

The lyre is the next most common harp in Africa. In Ethiopia and Eritrea we find two types: the large begena with 8-10 strings and a box-shaped body (corresponding to the ancient Greek kithara and almost identical to the Harp of Ur, Fig. 1.7) plus the smaller six-string krar, with a bowl-shaped body (resembling the Greek lyra).  Both these instruments are played with a combination of plucking with fingers, strumming with a plectrum, and dampening unwanted strings with the non-playing hand.

The lyre was well-represented during the classical era in Greece, Rome, and Israel. These lyres expanded upon African lyres by experimenting with sound boxes of different sizes, shapes, and materials, larger numbers of strings and modes of attaching them, as well as affixing bells and vibrato mechanisms. Michalis Georgiou of Cyprus' life work is reconstructing these instruments, and the variations are astonishing, in turn allowing great artistic scope which we will explore in Chapter 3.

Somewhat similar in shape to African spike harps such as the kontingo, simbingo, donso ngoni, kamaleng ngoni, bolon or bolombato but otherwise unrelated, 21 the sophisticated kora of the Mande people of West Africa is classified as a harp-lute or bridge-harp, and is extremely popular today worldwide (Fig. 1.8). The first literature reference we find to the kora is during the late 18th century, by Scottish explorer Mungo Park (Ibid.) 

The kora's strings lie in two parallel ranks, rising on either side of a vertical bridge which has a notch for each string, sporting 21 strings in total. The strings are attached to the neck with plaited leather thongs (as with some of the most ancient harps such as the Bull Lyre of Ur), or in recent practice are sometimes connected to guitar machine heads. Occasionally levers are affixed, as with neo-Celtic harps. The long neck passes through a large, hemispherical gourd resonator covered with a leather sounding board. The neck varies from less than a meter to almost 1.5 meters. A crossbar supports two vertical handles which fingers 3, 4, and 5 hold onto - the playing fingers are 1 and 2 (always surprising to learn, as kora music sounds very full-textures - more on how this effect is created later).

Below (Fig. 1.9) is a diagram of kora string rank layout with corresponding pitches in SATB notation:

Fig 1.6

Fig. 1.6 An African bow harp with gourd for resonator attached

Fig. 1.7  The ancient Mesopotamian Golden Lyre of Ur

Fig. 1.7 The ancient Mesopotamian Golden Lyre of Ur © Lyre of Ur Project

Fig. 1.7  The ancient Mesopotamian Golden Lyre of Ur

Fig. 1.8 A kora

Fig. 1.9 Diagram of kora stringing system

Fig. 1.9 Diagram of kora stringing system

In summary, African harps in general follow four structural elements: 22

1. A neck fitted with tuning pegs or rings

2. A resonator

3. A sound table, usually animal skin stretched over the open side of the resonator

4. Either a string holder or a bridge

1.3b Middle Eastern Harps

Lyres emerged in Mesopotamia around 2650 BCE. For the first three centuries they were large ("bull lyres”, as seen in Fig. 1.7) and approximately one meter high. Smaller, portable lyres became standard after 2000 BCE. Despite being easily carried, lyres did not spread much east of Iran. 23 

Today we still find lyres and harps in use. The simsimiyya of Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, descended from Bedouin tribes (Fig. 1.10) has between 5-25 strings, most commonly 19 atrings. The junuk (Fig. 1.11), a fairly small angular harp, is an instrument of the desert, therefore easily transportable and still in use today. 24 

The peripatetic nature of harps is demonstrated in this quote:

In the Altai mountains in Russian West-Siberia archeologists found the remnants of this angular harp (Fig. 1.12) while digging up a royal tomb. It was a big surprise to find this instrument, which seemed to come from Near-East Mesopotamia. Careful reconstruction revealed an instrument with a large soundbox covered with skin and it had 5 strings. It is thought to be from the 5th cent. BC. 25

━ Ank van Campen

Besides the ubiquitous ancient arched harps, in the Middle East we find angular harps increasing in size:


[Fig. 1.13 is an] Egyptian angular harp discovered in Thebes, New Kingdom [1550 – 1069 BCE]. Its green leather covering is original. It was found in very good shape. It has 21 strings of which the lowest string is four times as long as the highest…The soundbox is 110 cm in height. So it is a big instrument…The latter resulted in a strong body which could support strings with high tension, i.e., strings with a loud sound. Its origin is thought to be Assyrian. (Ibid.)

Fig. 1.10  A simsimiyya  © Magnus Manske, Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 1.10 A simsimiyya © Magnus Manske, Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 1.11  A junuk/januk

Fig. 1.11 A junuk/januk,

Fig. 1.12  Angular harp from 5th century BCE

Fig. 1.12 Angular harp from 5th century BCE,

Fig. 1.13  Egyptian angular harp

Fig. 1.13 Egyptian angular harp,

Considered throughout many cultures and eras a sacred instrument, we find frequent depictions of the angular harps in ancient Egyptian art, which often has a sacred tone (Fig. 1.14).

Growing in size as time went on, we see a Turkish angular harp painted by Danish artist Melchior Lorck in 1576, featuring more than 30 strings (Fig. 1.15).

Although there are many poetic descriptions of the Persian çeng, there are no surviving specimens nor detailed descriptions. The late 17th-century Ottoman traveler and writer Evliya Çelebi described the çeng as "a large instrument in the shape of an elephant's trunk" (i.e. L-shaped) sometimes with as many as 40 strings. 26 New York-based Japanese harpist Tomoko Sugawa has also been involved in the reconstruction and performance of the Persian harp, terming hers a kugo (built by Bill & Catherine Campbell). We will learn about Sugawa's repertoire in Chapter 3. A recent reconstruction, supported by the International Art & Architecture Research Association and UN-HABITAT, of the Persian harp (çeng/chang) took 22,000 hours of research and an additional 7,500 hours of physical labor to complete. 27

Another proponent of instrument reconstruction is Fikret Karakaya, who has rebuilt an Ottoman çeng and specializes in classical Turkish repertoire. He incorporates an innovative latch system to meet the tuning demands of multiple scales and temperaments (Fig. 1.16).

The santoor (Fig. 1.17), although not always considered a harp due to its construction, appears to have originated in Persia and from there fanned out to Turkey where it is known as the kanun, Greece, where it became a santuri, in Hungary and Romania the cimbalom, and India where it is called the swarmandal. This instrument will be discussed further in section 1.3c below.

By borrowing the Turkish kanun's mandals (tuning levers), a modern hybrid çeng has been designed by Turkish artist/instrument maker Feridun Öngören in collaboration with Robert Labaree, as described and depicted (Fig. 1.18) below. This hybrid çeng also features long strings extending past the bridge which allow pitch bending, similar to the Chinese guzheng described below in section 1.3d.

Over the past 12 years [the ceng] evolved in response to the exacting microtonal expectations of classical makam and the virtuoso standards of modern classical performance. The result has been a hybrid instrument featuring high-tension nylon strings like the modern European harp, a bridge resting on a spruce sound board with sound holes like the ud, and five tuning levers or mandals per string borrowed from the kanun, its distinctive C-shaped arch sets it apart from the traditional European harp and echoes the shape found in Ottoman paintings. However, unlike the miniatures, the arch is not left open, but is solidly supported by a post and the instrument is not tucked under the player's arm (steadied by a pole extending from the bottom of the instrument) but sits upright on its own stand, freeing both of the player's hands. 28

━ Robert Labaree

Fig. 1.14  Ancient Egyptian painting depicting an angular harp being played for the god Thoth

Fig. 1.14 Ancient Egyptian painting depicting an angular harp being played for the god Thoth

Fig. 1.15 Turkish angular harp by Danish artist Melchior Lorck

Fig. 1.15 Turkish angular harp by Danish artist Melchior Lorck

Fig. 1.16 Fikret Karakaya playing the çeng he reconstructed

Fig. 1.16 Fikret Karakaya playing the çeng he reconstructed

Fig. 1.17 A santoor, also known as a kanun, santuri, and other variations

Fig. 1.17 A santoor, also known as a kanun, santuri, and other variations

Fig. 1.18 Robert Labaree with his hybrid ceng

Fig. 1.18 Robert Labaree with his hybrid ceng

Returning to santoors/kanuns, all are trapezoidal in shape and are played held on the lap or on a stand. Turkish kanuns have 26 courses of strings, with three strings per course (like the piano) and a range of three and a half octaves. They are played by plucking the strings with two picks, one in each hand, by the fingernails, or with hammers, as with the Hungarian cimbalom and American hammered dulcimer.

As mentioned above, the kanun features latches/levers for each course called mandals. These small levers are raised or lowered quickly by the performer while the instrument is being played to change pitch. While Armenian kanuns feature half tones and Arabic qanuns quarter tones, typical Turkish kanuns divide the semitone into 6 equal parts, yielding 72 equal divisions (commas) of the octave. Not all divisions are available on the Turkish kanun, however, since mandals are only affixed for the most common maqamat (scales). Some kanun makers choose to divide the semitone of the lower registers into 7 parts instead for microtonal subtlety at the expense of octave equivalences. Hundreds of mandal configurations are at the player's disposal when performing on an ordinary Turkish kanun. 29

1.3c Indian harps

Before the Silk Road became active, arched harps known as vina/veena were found in India, 30 either emerging indigenously or imported from Africa; after the route opened angular harps also appeared. As Roderic Knight states 31, arched harps spanned the entire length and breadth of India from the 2nd century BCE.

Ancient Tamil Sahgam literature mentions the yaal (another term for harp) in 200 BCE. It is considered the first instrument played by the Tamil people, with further evidence from statues and other iconic sources from 500 BC depicting people playing this harp. Later texts from the 9th century CE also discuss arched harps ranging from 7 to 21 strings, shaped either as a peacock, a bow, or a head resembling a Yali/Leogryph, reminding us of the worldwide collation of mythology and harp.

Today, an arched harp is still in use in India: played with a plectrum and called the bin-baja, a probable variation of vina (Fig. 1.19).

Most likely imported from Persia via the Silk Route, we find the swarmandal/surmandal (“Swara” means a musical note and "Mandal" means a multitude or group 32), which bears a strong resemblance to the santoor/kanun. Although considered a minor instrument in Indian music, these harps have a long presence in India. There is no standard size or number of strings for a swarmandal  (Fig. 1.20). One tunes the swarmandal to the particular raga being performed, as it has no levers or other pitch-altering accessories. It is generally used as a drone instrument  - much like the tanpura - to accompany vocalists, although it sometimes functions as a solo instrument. 33 34

Fig. 1.19 A bin-baja © Roderic Knight

Fig. 1.19 A bin-baja © Roderic Knight

Fig. 1.20 A typical modern swarmandal

Fig. 1.20 A typical modern swarmandal

1.3d Asian Harps


Harps were known in China from the 6th century CE onward:

They were either arched (arriving from India) or angular (from Iran and points further West). A few centuries later angular harps became ubiquitous in Chinese ensembles. 35

It was the same instrument in all three regions but the name differed: kong-hou, gonghu, and kugo. China valued it greatly, particularly during the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) Dynasties, but in Japan and Korea their success was more limited. Eventually, the popularity decreased in China and by 1100 they had largely disappeared from East Asia. 36

━ Bo Lawergren

The Burmese harp has survived to this day; also known as the saung-gauk, it is the national instrument of Burma (Fig. 1.21). As with many harps it became associated with royal courts, with the harpist holding high status there. It sports 16 nylon (formerly silk) low-tension strings (in Thailand it is known as the pin-nam-tao and has 15 strings) attached to the arch via braided rings, similar to traditional kora stringing. 

The Burmese harp can be up to 80 cm long, 16 cm wide, and 16 cm deep, with an arch rising about 60 cm from the body. It has a treated goatskin soundboard, with the rest of the body being treated lacquered wood. It arrived approximately 500 CE from India 37; today there are only 5-6 harp makers left in Burma 38  (Fig. 1.22).

This harp is played sitting on the floor or in a chair with the harp body in the lap and the arch by the left hand. String orientation is the opposite of lever and pedal harps; on the Burmese harp, the lowest pitched strings are closest to the player's eyes while the highest pitch strings are furthest away. The strings are plucked with the right-hand fingers reaching in from the outside perspective, and the elbow hangs free of the harp body (Ibid.).

Side note: Steppe harps flourished before Buddhism entered East Asia. These harps were not associated with Buddhism, nor did they appear on Silk Road paintings 39,  suggesting an indigenous origin. An example is the changi, a horizontal angular harp found today in Georgia (Fig. 1.23).

The guzheng (Fig. 1.24) dates back to at least 500 BCE and is the most popular type of harp in Asia today. It has many descendants all over Asia, such as the koto of Japan, the kayagum of Korea, and the dan tranh of Vietnam. It is a plucked string instrument with 12-26 movable bridges: the standard one used today has 21 bridges. Originally, silk strings were used; these have been replaced with steel strings or steel cores wrapped with nylon. The player plucks the strings on the right-hand side of the bridge with the right hand while the left hand presses the strings on the left-hand side of the bridge, producing glissando bending tones and variations of vibrato. 40

In the 20th century, the demand rose for a national instrument rooted in ancient times yet contemporary in construction and function. In 1964, the konghou was revived in Shenyang, China, and during the 1980s several Chinese musical instrument factories began producing a hybrid konghou combining elements from the guzheng, pipa (lute), qin (mandolin), and pedal harp (Fig. 1.25)

Featuring double-row string ranks and double-action pedals, the konghou can easily play a 12-tone scale, expanding beyond the pentatonic scale focus of much of traditional Asian music. The konghou can be played with the characteristic traditional Chinese technique of ‘Yin, An, Swing' found in guzheng and pipa playing, which decorates and prolongs the melody. Each of the double rows has 36 strings, making 72 strings total; each string has a bridge set in the middle of the soundboard. Strings (silk twisted over steel) of both ranks cross the bridges and are tied to the back of the sound box. By playing a string on one side and pressing the string of the same pitch on the other side, multiple ornamentations and vibratos are produced. The modern konghou, with its double rows of strings, adjustable soundbox, and multiple bridges, melds traditional Chinese music with contemporary techniques and expression. 41

Fig. 1.21  Burmese harpist Su Wai

Fig. 1.21 Burmese harpist Su Wai

Fig. 1.22 Burmese harp makers © Rick Heizman

Fig. 1.22 Burmese harp makers © Rick Heizman

Fig. 1.23  Riho, an ensemble from Svaneti, rehearses with a harp (changi)  and a bowed lute (chuniri). © Stuart Gelzer

Fig. 1.23 Riho, an ensemble from Svaneti, rehearses with a harp (changi) and a bowed lute (chuniri). © Stuart Gelzer

Fig. 1.24  A guzheng on its stand

Fig. 1.24 A guzheng on its stand

Fig. 1.25  A modern konghou

Fig. 1.25 A modern konghou

1.3e European Harps


The European category of harp is perhaps the most varied, being the youngest and therefore drawing from the most cultures and eras.

The oldest harps found in Europe are lyres, probably imported from North Africa via what is now the Middle East. Bo Lawergren 42 states the first documentation of frame harps in Europe appeared in 800AD, the earliest depictions in Ireland. The harp became the most popular musical instrument in later medieval Scotland and Ireland.

Early Celtic harps were often carved out of one piece of wood and strung with bronze or gut strings. 43 Wire-strung harps featured iron, brass, silver, and gold, allowing a distinctive bell-like timbre. As mentioned above, very few harps survive physically, but we do have three pre-16th century examples: the Brian Boru harp in Trinity College, Dublin (Fig. 1.26), plus the Queen Mary and Lamont harps in Scotland. 

Although Celtic harps had practically died out, the 1960s onwards brought a major harp revival in Ireland and beyond.  Composer Sean O’Riada (1931-1971) revived interest in traditional Irish music, particularly that of the last Irish harper-bard, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). Alan Stivell of Brittany continues to popularize the bronze-strung harp and more recently, the electric harp. Ann Heymann focuses on reconstructing ancient Celtic harps of many types, along with investigating their repertoires and techniques.  Harp makers such as Jay Witcher, David Kortier, Ardival Harps, Joël Herrou, and many others have been key to this harp revival.

Modern neo-Celtic harps/lever harps (there is much discussion around the naming of these new harps) are a hybrid of many worldwide and historical influences and are possibly the most popular non-pedal harps today.

Levers, somewhat similar to kanun mandals, allow harps to be played in multiple keys and tunings in different octaves, as well as engage in interesting effects such as lever/note bending.  Innovations in neo-Celtic/lever harp construction occur continuously, with some of the most important being:

Ray Mooers from Dusty Strings created the idea for the slip joint at the top of the soundbox. In my estimation, that is one of the most significant ideas yet because it eliminates the long standing problem of the neck breaking, or the top of the soundbox being torn apart if the harp topples over. It also allows the neck to gently settle on the box top as it sags over time due to tension. 44

━ Jon Westling

Other innovations include John Westling’s stringing of the lowest 11 strings directly into the base of the harp, relieving the soundboard of over 600lbs of tension, allowing for a thinner, more dynamically responsive soundboard (Fig. 1.27).

An innovation that strangely has not gained wide popularity is the Douglas/Dilling single-action lever harp (Fig. 1.28) championed by harpist Mildred Dilling (1894-1982) in collaboration with luthier Arsalaan Douglas Fay. Inspired by John Egan of Dublin’s early 19th century Royal Portable Irish Harp, it functions similarly to a single-action pedal harp but is much smaller. It has 7 levers affixed to the harmonic curve of the harp, one lever for each note of the diatonic scale. These levers change all similar pitches at the same time: the engaged C lever raises all C strings to the sharpened (C#) position in one move. This contrasts with the typical lever harp where each C must be sharpened individually

These are just a few of the innovations harps have undergone in recent decades; more will be discussed in later chapters.


Looking further back in time, on the continent during the Gothic era and increasingly during the Renaissance, harps increased pitch range, especially in the bass, resulting in large instruments. Accidentals were achieved by pressing the string with fingers against the neck, a technique used by Latin American harpists today with fingers, tuning wrenches, and other devices. 

Another Gothic development was the bray harp. Said to ‘bray like a donkey’, these harps are fitted with tiny L-shaped wooden pegs (Fig. 1.29). The ancient Ethiopian begena features leather toggles at the bottom of each string which create a similar sound to bray pins, and the reconstructed Lyres of Ur also feature this device.

These bray pins hold the strings in the soundbox and also lightly touch them. This light point of contact causes the buzzing sound as the string vibrates.  Although it may be a strange sound to us today, this was the familiar sound of the gut-strung harp across Europe for several hundred years, played between the 14th and 18th centuries, and heard in Wales into the early 19th century.  They were the classic harps during the Renaissance, and described by Michael Praetorius in his 1619 publication as "the ordinary harp". 45

Ardival Harps

Multi-course/multi-row harps are another European variation on instruments like the African kora or Middle Eastern kanun, featuring multiple parallel or crossing rows of strings. 

Double-strung harps have two parallel rows of strings, each row dedicated to a separate hand. Usually tuned diatonically, there are of course many possible tuning variations. Having rows allows the performer interesting effects such as rapid clear echoing without staccato or buzzing, and distinct polyphonic lines, to name a couple.

The triple harp (Fig. 1.30) features three rows of strings. The outer rows are tuned similarly and diatonically, like the double-strung harp, and the additional inner row of strings is tuned to pitches that we would call accidentals (similar to the black keys of a piano, roughly). We first see this instrument in 16th century Italy, after which it migrated to Wales and became the national instrument there.

The cross-strung harp features two rows of strings, one diatonic and the other filling out the chromatic scale. The strings cross without touching about two-thirds of the way up the string length (Fig. 1.31). Another tuning option is the isomorphic system, which moves in sequential half-steps. The first mention of cross-strung harps is Spanish music scholar Juan Bermudo's Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales from 1555.

Looking toward pedal harps, perhaps the most visible harps in the modern world due to their role in orchestras, the genesis of this harp was during the second half of the 17th century, primarily in Germany.

Single-course "hook" pedal harps were fitted with manually turned hooks that fretted individual strings, raising their pitch a half step.

In the 18th century, a link mechanism connecting the hooks with seven pedals (one for each diatonic pitch) was created, and the single-action pedal harp was born. Jacob Hochbrucker (1673–1763, Bavaria) has been most credited for this invention. 

Later, a second row of hooks was installed along the neck, capable of raising the pitch of a string by either one or two half steps, allowing a fully chromatic harp (Fig. 1.32). Called the double-action pedal harp by its patent-holder Sebastien Erard (1752–1831, France), it became the standard option for classical and jazz playing today.

Fig. 1.26  The famous Trinity/Brian Boru harp, dated form the 14th or 15th century

Fig. 1.26 The famous Trinity/Brian Boru harp, dated form the 14th or 15th century

Fig. 1.27  John Westling’s innovative Cithara Nova

Fig. 1.27 John Westling’s innovative Cithara Nova

Fig. 1.28  The Douglas single action lever harp,

Fig. 1.28 The Douglas single action lever harp,

Fig. 1.27  John Westling’s innovative Cithara Nova

Fig. 1.29 Bray pins on a harp built by Rainer Thurau © Rainer Thurau

Fig. 1.30 Italian triple harp built by Rainer Thurau © Rainer Thurau

Fig. 1.30 Italian triple harp built by Rainer Thurau © Rainer Thurau

Fig. 1.31  Spanish cross-strung harp built by Rainer Thurau © Rainer Thurau

Fig. 1.31 Spanish cross-strung harp built by Rainer Thurau © Rainer Thurau

Fig. 1.32  Diagram of main pedal harp components

Fig. 1.32 Diagram of main pedal harp components

1.3f Latin American Harps


In Latin America, Engel tells us that the ancient Peruvians had a five or seven string lyre, demonstrating once more the wide distribution of this instrument, and pointing to possible indigenous origins again. 46

Today, the Latin American harp (Fig. 1.33) is found all over the continent and resembles Spanish Renaissance harps (from which it was derived via Spanish conquerors and clergy). This harp borrows from other instruments and musical traditions – an interesting example of a fully formed Western harp being transformed musically and physically upon encountering another culture.

Light in both construction and string tension, its strings are placed close together and played with nails, creating a rapid, brilliant sound.

Paraguayan harps, a national instrument and possibly the most popular Latin American harp in general, usually are large, with approximately 36 strings and a wide, deep soundbox that tapers sharply.  They do not stand upright when unattended and can be played standing up or sitting down.  Some models now feature guitar machine heads and/or levers for tuning.

Being extra light, the Arpa Peruana/Peruvian harp is often played upside down, sitting on the harpist's shoulder so that he/she can walk (an interesting throwback to vertical angular harps soundbox orientation) (Fig. 1.34).

Additional popular Latin American harps are the Arpa Llanera (harp of the plains) of Venezuela and Colombia which features Joropo music, the Arpa Tuyero of Venezuela which features metal strings, and the Arpa Jarocha/Mexican harp (similar to the Paraguayan harp) used in Jarocho music. 

There are also examples of Latin American harps with middle strings removed to facilitate percussion on soundboard by a second performer, reminding us of the kora's konkondiro technique described in Chapter 3.

Fig. 1.33 A typically colorful Paraguayan harp,

Fig. 1.33 A typically colorful Paraguayan harp,

Fig. 1.34 Peruvian harp in upside-down stance © Timothy Harding

Fig. 1.34 Peruvian harp in upside-down stance © Timothy Harding

1.3g Modern Harp Innovations


Despite being one of the oldest instruments in the world, the harp continues to evolve, as evidenced above.

Additional developments include electric harps (Fig. 1.35), both solid-body as with an electric guitar and electro-acoustic (a regular harp retrofitted with pickups). Among the benefits of the electric harp, it allows amplification to loud volumes, the ability to perform in large spaces not acoustically optimized (for example, a stadium), the option to perform with large ensembles as a prominent member, being able to employ sound effects and even make the harp sound like a completely different instrument, to name a few.

Harp builder Andrew Thom of Tasmania states:

Traditionally, and going back thousands of years, we have made harps from wood - because that's all we had - and the properties of the timbers have necessarily determined some design characteristics. Now we have metal alloys, and some interesting new composite materials, used in boats, cars, air and space craft. We can make harps too from these things, and they are lighter, stronger, better, and they can be beautiful and less expensive. By interesting innovations in harp architecture, engineering, and materials technology, I have designed some harps for now and the future. 47 (Fig. 1.36)

━ Thom Andrew

Fig. 1.35 An electric harp built by David Kortier © Diana Rowan

Fig. 1.35 An electric harp built by David Kortier © Diana Rowan

Fig. 1.36  An Andrew Thom harp showing his characteristic innovative style © Andrew Thom

Fig. 1.36 An Andrew Thom harp showing his characteristic innovative style © Andrew Thom

Examples of Thom’s innovations include (quoted at length from due to unique nature of information):

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created from welded aluminium alloy monocoque, leather covered:


1.  The strength is in the single piece metal skin: unlike traditional harps, it needs no internal framing, thus allowing a clearer, less confused acoustic quality.

2.  High strength with low weight - built stronger than necessary, to be able to handle severe impacts without destructive damage.

3.  Acoustic stabilisation. In timber bodied harps, excess secondary and tertiary acoustics are absorbed in the neck and column timbers, and within the box itself. Aluminium alloy conducts sound very well - too well in fact, for use in harps without material modification. It produces many unwanted metallic ringing sounds, and these must be controlled.

4.  I use a substance developed by NASA for the space shuttle. It is a polymer loaded with crushed mica crystals, which when painted on metal surfaces, transmutes any acoustic energy flowing within the metal into a new energy form - heat - which dissipates conveniently. By careful use of this substance in my harp soundboxes, the desired acoustic control is established.

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Virtually all concert tension harps have Spruce soundboards, and it is a compromise. Spruce is used because it is strong enough to handle the tension at the thickness needed for optimum performance. It is not used as the best acoustic timber. I use Western Red Cedar, because it gives superior acoustic response, but it is not strong enough by itself.  Carbon Fibre reinforcement makes it much stronger than Spruce, with a brighter, cleaner, louder sound.  Other Advantages:

1.  High impact tolerance - the sort of blow that would crack a Spruce soundboard just bounces off, perhaps leaving mere localised scratches.

2.  Not affected by temperature or humidity changes, provided the harp is kept at a temperature below 53 degrees Celsius.

3.  Aluminium String bar - adequate load spreading, and superior acoustic conduction to the whole of the soundboard.

4.   Adequate soundboard area below the lowest string - allows richness in all the lower strings.

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Neck & Column:


A single piece sculpture crafted from Queensland Hoop Pine marine ply and Carbon Fibre composite. Features:

1.  Perpendicular column "all straight and square". It looks technically correct, and it is.

2.  Strings hang from the inner surface of an outwardly cantilevered neck. Their tensile forces are kept within the projections of the column, and not outside it, trying to bend it sideways. This tendency, on traditional harps, necessitates a huge piece of tree trunk (column)

3.  The Carbon Fibre adds strength and resilience to the whole structure, allowing lighter weight.

4.  Adequate upper neck cutaway - there is excellent access to play the upper strings.

Finally, New Zealand/Turkish harpist Natalia Mann states: 

I think that the present harp action is obsolete, and I think that it now can and must change in order to cater for the more global outlook of humanity in the present millennia.  The pedal harp was designed for art music, and art music these days is increasingly microtonal, frustrating both harpists and composers, potentially sending the harp back to the 'superficial' basket, when really harp is one of the essential and most expressive mediums for contemporary music. 48

━ Natalia Mann


As a result, Mann is developing a harp with sliders, influenced by German harp builder/composer/performer Rudiger Oppermann, to not only handle the modern microtonal music she mentions, but also the beloved classical Turkish music she performs - a perfect example of old and new coming together to strengthen the harp’s future.




Summary of Chapter 1


As we have seen, harps - along with drums and flutes - are the oldest instruments in existence. They enjoy high status and variation worldwide. Firmly established from the earliest times as a developed instrument, harp innovations are constant, with exciting new possibilities emerging from all parts of the globe.

Vast variation within the harp world has spawned a wide repertoire of techniques both practical and artistic which we will explore as fertile compositional grounds for harp artists and admirers.

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Note: due to extensive use of multiple languages, there is great variation in spelling regarding instruments and terms.
The most common spellings will be used throughout, with note made of popular alternate spellings.


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