What is a Harp?
by Joyce Rice and Deb Seymour

What is a harp? Is it the instrument played by angels floating on clouds? Or is it that tall, golden, half-hidden thing in the symphony orchestra? Maybe it's that squat and broad instrument in an Irish band or the stringed instrument accompanying an African storyteller.

Gold Concert HarpThe harp, in fact, is all those things. It can accompany a voice, a silver flute, or be backed by jazz bass and drums. It can have a body carved from a single chunk of wood, or one precisely constructed from 2000 hand-crafted or machine-tooled pieces. It can be played with only the hands or with both hands and feet, as in the case of a pedal harp. It can be played solo or as part of an ensemble. But no matter where, or what kind, or how it's played, the harp remains one of the most beautiful and fascinating instruments in the world.

In simplest terms, the harp is any plucked string instrument, usually triangular in shape, in which the plane of the strings is perpendicular to the soundboard. Zithers, auto harps, guitars and violins all have their strings running parallel to the sound board (or sound hole), which is their major difference from harps.

Although harps come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and weights, they all consist of three main parts: the sound board (or box), the neck, and the strings. The modern Western harp is triangular in shape. Most harps are between two feet (60 cm) to six feet (1m.80) tall and have 22 to 47 strings. Smaller harps may sit on your lap, but larger ones usually rest on the floor. Their strings may be of gut, wire, or nylon, in one, two, three, or crossed ranks.

Female Egytain HarpistHarps are found, in one form or another, throughout the world, in more sizes and shapes than almost any other instrument. The harp is one of the oldest instruments, known to have flourished in ancient Egypt, and one of the newest, as with the electric harp. The harp also occupies a colorful place in history. It has been celebrated by some nations and destroyed by government decree in others.

We invite you to learn much more about the harp through this Harp Spectrum website.

Click here for another history of the harp, from the Lyon & Healy West website, or browse through our own page of Harp History links..



Harp Timeline: Click images for details
Hook harp - image
Downhill harp (Ireland) - image
1500 B.C. (Egypt) - image
440 B.C. (Greece) - image
Chromatic harp - image
Single action pedal harp - image
800;s - 900's (Scotland) - image
1490 (Germany) - image
1619 (Ireland) - image
2600 B.C. (Mesopotamia) - image
1200 B.C. (Cyprus) - image
Harp time-line image

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