Kari Gardner,
Chicago Harpist

Frequently Asked Questions
by harpist Kari Gardner


These quick navigation drop-down links can be used to go directly to questions that interest you.
| Does playing the harp hurt your fingers? |
| Do you have to tune the harp yourself? How often? |
| What are the names for the different parts of a harp? |
| Why is a harp that shape? Looks or function? |
| How much does a harp weigh and how tall is it? |
| Why are the strings different colors? |
| How do you hold the harp to play it? |


Question: Does playing the harp hurt your fingers?

Answer:
Playing the harp is very hard on the fingers. Unlike many other plucked string instruments such as the guitar, picks cannot be used, and neither can the fingernail. To do so would not only be detrimental to the gut and nylon strings, but it produces a more clipped, tinny sound unlike the full, rich sound produced by using the pad of the finger. Even developing hard calluses or wearing away the natural ridges of the finger (those which create your fingerprint) can negatively affect the tone produced (though both of those aren't something a harpist can do much about).

So yes, it does often hurt the fingers to play the harp. Raw, blistered, and calloused fingers are all part of the package. In order to avoid the raw and blistered fingers, a harpist must slowly build up and maintain calluses on the pads of their fingers. Playing much more than usual may still raise blisters and if you go on vacation, when you come back you'll have to rebuild your calluses or once again--it's blister time.

There is one exception, the Irish wire-strung harp (strung with bronze wires instead of gut or nylon) is traditionally played with the fingernails.

| Top | Fingers | Tuning | Parts | Shape | Size | Strings | Playing |

Question: Do you have to tune the harp yourself? How often does it need to be tuned?

Answer:
Unlike the piano and the piano-tuners that you can hire to tune it, a harpist must tune his/her own harp. Harps also generally go out of tune more often than pianos. While temperature and humidity changes will affect any instrument made out of wood, a harp is generally moved more often than a piano--not just from room to room, but also from home to car to event and back again.

How often the harp needs to be tuned depends on several factors. As mentioned above, changes in temperature and humidity will affect the tuning. Moving the harp will affect the tuning, partially because moving the instrument might jar it, and partially because of the changes in temperature and humidity. In climates where there is an extreme difference between winter and summer, transition seasons such as autumn and spring can be particularly hard times to keep a harp in tune.

That also means that if the harp is next to a window with warm sunlight shining on it, or next to an air vent with air-conditioned or heated air blowing on all or part of it, the harp is likely to go out of tune as the sun shifts or the air cycles on and off. Even the temperature difference between a stage with dimmer pre-concert lighting, and brighter (and warmer) concert lighting can cause the tuning to slip, or the difference between a pre-gig empty room, and once it is filled with warm, breathing people.

| Top | Fingers | Tuning | Parts | Shape | Size | Strings | Playing |

Question: What are the different parts of a harp called?

Answer:

Column
Neck
Body or
Soundbox
Soundboard
vertical part
top crosspiece
diagonal, hollow
part of the body

Base
Knee-block
Pedals
Disks
Levers
Blades
bottom of harp, houses pedals
of pedal harp
junction of neck and body
on pedal harp

pushing pedals turns disks
of pedal harp

disks change string pitches on pedal harp
flip levers to alter string pitch on lever harp
type of lever on wire-strung harp, rotates


| Top | Fingers | Tuning | Parts | Shape | Size | Strings | Playing |

Question: Is a harp shaped like that because it's pretty or because it's functional?

Answer:
The shape of the harp is functional. It has gone through thousands of years of change and improvement to come up with its present form. Its form represents attention to not only basic function, but also to good sound production, comfortable playability, and durability. There are however decorative aspects which are often added to the basic form, such as pretty carvings on the column and gold leafing, which do nothing for the actual sound of the harp.

| Top | Fingers | Tuning | Parts | Shape | Size | Playing |

Question: How much does a harp weigh?

Answer:
Concert grand harps like my own pictured above weigh 80 - 90 pounds. Mine weighs about 85 pounds, and the cart I haul it in weighs 35 pounds, for a total of 120 pounds. Other types of harps come in a variety of weights. For example, my gut-strung folk harp made by Thormahlen is 26 pounds. My Irish wire-strung lap harp made by Triplett is 12 pounds.

Question: How tall is a harp?

Answer:
Concert grand harps stand about 6 feet 1 inch to 6 feet 3 inches tall. Mine is 6'2". Other types of harps come in a variety of sizes. For example, my Thormahlen folk harp is 4'9" and my Triplett lap harp is 2'10".

| Top | Fingers | Tuning | Parts | Shape | Size | Strings | Playing |

 

Question: Why are the strings different colors?

Answer:
The strings of a harp are most often color-coded for quick reference. All of the C strings are red and all of the F strings are black /dark blue. All of the other strings are white (or not colored as in the case of metal wire strings). It is simply so the harpist can find his/her place at a glance.

Also, different types of strings may appear different colors. For example, low strings which produce bass notes are often wire-wound like piano strings, and look silver or bronze. Gut strings are slightly yellowish and fibrous in appearance, whereas nylon strings are whiter and more translucent. Pedal harps have wire-wound strings in the bass range, gut strings in the mid range, and nylon strings on the high end.

| Top | Fingers | Tuning | Parts | Shape | Size | Strings | Playing |

Question: How do you hold a harp to play it?

Answer:
The harpist is seated behind the body/soundboard of the harp (See Parts of the Harp above). The harp body is leaned back and rested against the harpist's right shoulder. If the harp and harpist are properly positioned the harp will almost balance at that angle by itself, and not much of the harp's weight will be actually resting on the harpist.

Given that the harp is leaning against the right shoulder, the left arm and hand are actually more free to reach farther down the harp to the longer, lower-pitched strings. For the right arm and hand, reaching the shorter, higher-pitched strings is more comfortable. Therefore, just like the piano, the right hand generally plays the higher notes and the melody, and the left hand generally plays the lower notes and the accompaniment.


| Does playing the harp hurt your fingers? |
| Do you have to tune the harp yourself? How often? |
| What are the names for the different parts of a harp? |
| Why is a harp that shape? Looks or function? |
| How much does a harp weigh and how tall is it? |
| Why are the strings different colors? |
| How do you hold the harp to play it? |

| Harp Information Index |
or go directly to page number
| 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |
| Gallery |