Kari Gardner,
Chicago Harpist

Types of Harps
by harpist Kari Gardner


While it is recommended that you read the page from the top in order to have a complete understanding, you may also use these quick drop-down links to go quickly to the areas that most interest you.

Section 1: Pedal Harps vs. Non-Pedal Harps
| Overview | Brief Technical History | Lever Harp | Pedal Harp |
Section 2: Types of Non-Pedal Harps
| Definition of Key Terms | Celtic Irish and Folk Harps | Wire-strung and Double-strung | Other |

 

Question: What are all these different types of harps I've heard referred to? Pedal? Folk? Celtic? Lever?

Answer:
Let's start with the difference between a lever and a pedal harp.

Pedal harp: The pedal harp is referred to in many different ways-- the classical harp, the concert harp, the concert grand, orchestral harp, double-action pedal harp--and can vary in size slightly, but they're all referring to the same thing. The big ornate, sometimes gilded-gold harp that you see in an orchestra or picture fitting in a grand ballroom. The type of harp Harpo Marx played.

Lever harp: Lever harps are also known as folk harps, Celtic harps, and Irish harps, as well as simply non-pedal harps, but they're not necessarily all the same thing. They can come in various sizes from lap harp (which is small enough to set on your lap--think of the harp that's pictured on a bottle of Guinness beer) to floor harps (up to around 5 feet tall standing on the floor). They can be strung with different types of strings, including nylon strings, gut strings, and bronze wires.

To give you a better idea, let's go on to a brief history of the harp from a technical point of view.


background: pedal harp
right side: lever harp: double-strung folk harp
foreground: lever harp: Irish wire-strung lap harp
For more photos different types of harps, see the
Harp Gallery.

Quick Navigation, Skip to:
| Celtic, Folk, Irish, Wire-strung, and Double-strung Harps |

A Brief Technical History of the Modern Harp

The harp is a very old instrument that has appeared in many forms throughout the world. As music has changed and developed through history, so has the harp. For now I'll just address one aspect of the technical history leading up to the modern pedal harp.

There are a lot of instruments which have not stayed in use to the present day, instruments that most people have never heard of because they were too limited to keep up with the changing music and what people wanted to be able to play on them. In the case of the harp, it went through technological advances to keep up with the times. Some changes worked, and we still use them today. Some changes weren't taken into popular usage. Kind of like all the different kinds of flying machines people invented, but the major models still with us are just the airplane and the helicopter.

In what major way did the harp need to advance in order to keep up with changing music? Think of the keys of a piano. The white keys are all the 'naturals', no sharps or flats. The black keys between the white keys are pitches that fall half-way between, they are the sharps and flats. Therefore: first white key is C, second white key is D, in order to get the pitch half-way in the middle you have to play the black key (you can call it C-sharp which basically means a half-step above C, or D-flat which means a half-step below D, they're the same thing).

Now think of harp strings like the white keys of a piano. All of the 'naturals' with none of the halfway in-between sharp and flat 'black keys'. Once upon a time, in order to get one of these other pitches, you had to take the time to tune the string to the other pitch. That's not something you can do very well on the fly, and what if you need both C-sharp and C-natural in the same piece?

The most obvious answer is to add more strings. But the strings need to be a minimum distance apart in order to be plucked (your finger must be able to fit between them) and in order for the strings to not hit each other and create a bad buzzing sound as they vibrate. So if you add in more strings at this minimum spacing, the harp becomes an unwieldy instrument. Tunes which once laid within reasonable reach are now a marvel of mastery as your hand has to move a greater distance in the same amount of time, and well, your arm is only so long--whereas you used to be able to reach a range of several octaves, now you can only reach a little over half of that.

Bzzzz, the 'obvious' answer is down the tubes. Though variations of harps were tried and still exist which make use of more strings to get the sharps and flats (like having the 'naturals' be at regular spacing in a vertical row like we're familiar with, and having the half-step sharp and flat strings cross between them at a diagonal, known as the cross-strung chromatic harp), these are not the harps that are in most common usage today.


The Lever Harp:

Levers are one 'technological advance' that did stick. In order to make harps more versatile, to be able to play in more than one key and to add sharps and flats while playing, levers were added that can change the pitch of a string. Put the lever up, it shortens the effective length of the string and the pitch sounds the half-step higher. Put the lever back down and voila! Two notes, one string.

The levers are positioned at the top of the string. They can be put on every string, or just those strings you most often need to change to sharp or flat. You set them in place between each piece you play without the time and hassle of retuning the whole harp. Or, if you need to change a lever during a piece, your left hand moves up to the lever, changes its position, then moves back down to the middle of the strings to continue playing. The type of levers on wire-strung harps are called blades, and they rotate to touch the string rather than flipping up, but it's the same principal.

The upside: A huge improvement over not having any quick way to get sharps and flats, and the mechanism is simple and doesn't take much room--the harp size can still range from something you can set on your lap to five feet tall standing on the floor.
The downside: Your left hand has to stop playing for the span of time it takes to change the lever. And you can only get 2 notes per string. You can either get flat and natural, or natural and sharp, but not all three--flat, natural, and sharp.
For some types of music that's ok, not all music requires that much lever-changing while playing. Irish folk music and early music such as from the Renaissance period are two examples. So for a folk harper, why invest in a huge, heavy instrument that boasts a complicated mechanism you don't need? Stick with the more traditional instrument. Also, because a lever harp can come in such a variety of sizes and range of prices, many young or beginning students start on a lever harp. That is not to say that lever harps are 'beginner harps', but they can be used as such.

But what if you want to play more harmonically complex music (music with lots of changes in what notes are sharp, natural or flat) such as more recent classical music (coming out of the Romantic period, the Impressionists, 20th-century music--think Debussy, Stravinsky) or other forms of contemporary music--jazz, pop, musical theater. You can make arrangements of some of this music that will work on the lever harp, but it won't necessarily have feel of the original composition because much of the harmonic complexity will have to be cut out. So how did the harp adjust to changing times and changing music?

The Pedal Harp:

The pedal harp is a further technological advance. It moves the job of changing the pitches of the strings to get sharps and flats from the left hand to both feet. There are 7 pedals on the base of the harp (3 on the left, 4 on the right), one for each note-class. That means that one for every 'C' string on the harp, one for every 'D' string. Seven, you ask? 1) A, 2) B, 3) C, 4) D, 5) E, 6) F, 7) G --and then the after G is A. So with one move of your foot, you can change every C string on the harp from C-natural to C-sharp.

In addition, each pedal has three positions. With the pedal in its topmost position, the note it controls is flat. Middle position = natural, all the way towards the floor = sharp.

The metal mechanism runs from the pedals in the base of the harp, up the column, and from there along the top of the harp. Disks at the top of each string rotate to pinch off or release the strings at different points and thereby change the pitch. Just like the levers only there's two per string and you can't move them with your hands.

The upside: you fix the downsides listed for the lever harp. You can keep playing with both hands while you change pedals with your feet, and you can get three pitches per string.

The downside: the harp has to be generally bigger and heavier in order to hold the complicated mechanism. And you can't have one C string be natural and another C string be sharp. One pedal changes ALL the C strings, ALL the C strings are either flat, natural, or sharp.

So basically, the pedal harp is in major ways more versatile, you can play more types of music on it more faithfully to what the composer/song-writer intended.


Quick Navigation, Skip to:
Pedal Harps vs. Lever Harps: | Overview | Brief Technical History | Lever Harp | Pedal Harp |
Types of Non-Pedal Harps: | Definition of Key Terms | Celtic Irish and Folk Harps | Wire-strung and Double-strung | Other |



Question: But what about all those other labels for non-pedal harps? Celtic harp, Irish harp, folk harp, wire-string, double-strung?

Answer:
We must first understand the terms 'Celtic', 'Irish', and 'folk'

Celtic: The Celts (pronounced kelts, not selts) were a group of tribes first found early in the second millennium BC in Southwest Germany and East France. Armed with iron weapons and mounted on horses, they rapidly spread over Europe and the British Isles. Druids were the religious persons of the Celts, and much of Western European folklore is derived from the Celts. By the fourth century BC they lost most of their holding in the north and in W Germany to encroaching Germanic tribes.

The Celts were a conquering people, who brought not just iron but their language and culture to the lands they invaded. Celtic language and culture were dispersed to peoples of little historical identity. The term 'Celtic' therefore refers most specifically to culture and language--those speaking a Celtic language and maintaining a cultural tradition through many centuries of common history in the same general area--and is unrelated to genetics.

Irish: Refers to the people, language, and culture of the island of Ireland, one of the lands invaded and conquered by the Celts in the centuries preceding the birth of Christ. The Romans who occupied Britain for 400 years never came to Ireland, so the Anglo-Saxon invaders who largely replaced the Celtic population in Britain did not greatly affect Ireland. What is important to note is that 'Celtic' and 'Irish' are not synonymous. While modern Celtic music and other aspects of modern Celtic culture survive and thrive in Ireland, the same could be said for Scotland, Wales, Cornwall (region of England), and Brittany (region of France).

Folk: the common people of a society or region considered to be the originators or carries of the customs, beliefs, and arts that make up a distinctive culture. Therefore when talking about folk music, it can broadly refer to all peoples' folk music, or a geographic region or country can be added to it to narrow it down: German folk music, Irish folk music, Chinese folk music, American folk music, etc.

Quick Navigation, Go Back to:
| Section 1: Pedal vs Lever Harps |

Folk harp

 

 

 

Double-strung
folk harp

Irish wire-strung harp

 

 

 

Irish wire-strung
lap harp


Now back to the harp:
While the earliest forms of harps have existed for almost as long as the bow and arrow (the harp is believed to originated from the hunter's bow), and has been found in tombs which date back to 3500 BC, its modern form emerged around the 9th century AD. The harp was a focal point of Celtic music and the material the strings were made of often depended on what was available--Irish harps were strung with wire, while Scottish harps were often strung with gut and Welsh harps with hair. A much more recent alternative are nylon strings.

Celtic harp: This term is catch-all phrase for wire, gut, and nylon strung non-pedal (lever/folk) harps that grew out of the Celtic tradition. Because many people use 'Celtic' synonymously with 'Irish', it is also sometimes used more specifically to refer to only wire-strung harps (Irish harps).

Folk harp: Most often used as a general term to refer to gut or nylon strung lever harps, which are more common than wire-strung harps today. As the Irish harp is also a folk harp, the difference is often made clear by saying more specifically, "Irish folk harp".

Irish harp: The national instrument of Ireland, the wire-strung harp.

wire strings
(Irish harp)
double-strung harp
nylon strings
(double-strung)

Wire-strung harp: strung with brass and bronze strings, most synonymous with 'Irish harp' today

Double-strung harp: a variation of folk harp, most often nylon-strung, with 2 parallel rows of strings. The second row of strings is attached on the other side of the harp. See picture above--facing the column of the harp head on, usually there would only be strings on the right side. The double also has strings on the left side.

 


Other: There are many other types of harps, such as the Welsh triple harp and the Paraguayan harp that still exist today, and historical versions of the harp such as the Egyptian harp. I have stayed within my realm of experience for this harp information page. To learn more about different forms of harps, try this site:

The Celtic Harper- A great site with a lot of harp information. Includes a FAQ (frequently asked questions) about the harp, including history and different types of harps and many more links to harp information pages.



Section 1: Pedal Harps vs. Non-Pedal Harps
| Overview | Brief Technical History | Lever Harp | Pedal Harp |
Section 2: Types of Non-Pedal Harps
| Definition of Key Terms | Celtic Irish and Folk Harps | Wire-strung and Double-strung | Other |

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


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