King David's Harp (Abridged)
by John Wheeler

No historical personage comes more readily to mind than the biblical King David when the word "harp" is mentioned. Yet the instrument, kinnor, translated "harp" in the King James Version of the Bible, was not a harp at all, but a lyre. The other stringed instrument David played, nevel, translated "psaltery" by the KJV, was likewise not a psaltery, and it may not have been a true harp either.
Image of  Ancient Palestinian Lyre
Lyre From Ancient Palestine
According to Josephus (1st century A.D.) the kinnor had ten strings, the nevel twelve. The kinnor anciently had a rectangular or trapezoidal soundbox and two curved arms of unequal length joined by a crossbar. It was played with the fingers or with a plectrum.

Nevel seems to mean "skin-bottle", perhaps because of its shape. Because the strings enter the top of the soundbox, it is more of a harp-lyre than the kinnor, whose strings stretch over a bridge on the side of the box in a lyre-like way.

The kinnorot and nevelim (plural terms), with their light framework and high tension strings, produced enough volume to compete with rams' horns, trumpets, and cymbals, and were used in both sacred and secular settings, accompanying choirs and soloists as well as song and dance.

Vocal melodies and instrumental accompaniment at that time were commonly conducted using gestures of the hands and fingers. Apparently the Hebrew Scriptures were sung to melodies conducted by a gestural system, for a transcription of such gestures is still found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text. All scriptures, not just the Psalms and songs, could in principle have been accompanied by kinnorot and nevalim, for "Thy statutes have been my zemirot (songs accompanied by plucked stringed instruments) in the house of my pilgrimage" (Psalm 119:54, KJV). The vocal melodies preserved by the biblical notation, then, would naturally have been accompanied by the biblical stringed instruments, as tuned to compatible scales and modes

On the basis of the late Suzanne Haik-Vantoura's decipherment of the biblical notation, I suggest that the kinnor and nevel may have been tuned in the following basic scales, with (E) as the tonic of the basic mode:

A B C D (E) F G A B C D E (nevel)

A B C D (E) F G A B C (kinnor)

The instruments would have been tuned to the "Pythagorean" temperament (that is, by a cycle of fourths and fifths), to facilitate the production of accidentals within a given mode. Other diatonic and diatonic-chromatic modes (the latter including intervals of a step and a half between certain degrees, as in our modern "harmonic minor" mode) would have been derived by simply raising the pitch of one or more strings by a half step.

David and others probably played single notes, simple intervals, and arpeggiated chords to accompany the singing, as the vocal melodies were very "transparent" as well as "harmonic" in their structure. When they echoed from the walls of the chamber or courtyard where they were performed, they produced clear intervals and even triads. Any more complex accompaniment would clash with this effort, not underline it as the Talmudists suggest was the norm.

While King David's "harp" does not match our current definition, a triangular-shaped instrument, he did play its precursor, and it is wonderful to imagine that the "harp" was such an integral part of all sectors of life so many thousands of years ago!

Video Links:

Music of the Bible Revealed - NPR's Morning Edition interview.

John Wheeler lectures on the music, and plays a scale on the harp.

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