The concert harp is famous for its heavenly image. It hasn’t always had a place in orchestral music, but since the 19th century composers like Ravel and Debussy have been in love with the instrument and its unique, resonant sound.
The modern concert pedal harp is very different to the stringed instrument used to accompany Irish folk music, or the first versions of it found in 2500 BC. It is more powerful and richer in tone, thanks to its pedalling system which allows the player to continually change the tuning while playing.
“The harp occupies a position unique in the history of music. It is the oldest known instrument, having existed in one form or another, in every land and every age.” – Lyon & Healy Counter Sales Book, 1925
The earliest evidence of the harp is found in Ancient Egypt around 2500 BC. Back then, the instrument was shaped like a bow and had very few strings. Without the column seen on modern harps, they could not support much string tension.
Between 700-1000 AD, frame harps appeared in western Europe, which had between 10 and 11 strings. They were followed in the 14th century by Irish harps, which were the first version of the instrument to have a hollowed sound box which amplified the sound.
In 1800, diatonic harps – also known as Renaissance harps – were invented. They had 24 or more gut strings, which were fixed to a soundboard with wooden pegs.
Fast forward ten years, and the double-action pedal harp was patented. This harp had seven pedals, which could be depressed twice and each string passed through two pronged discs.
It was then that the harp was introduced into orchestral music. The pedalling system, which made the instrument completely chromatic, meant that composers found the instrument much more flexible to write for.
You won’t find any harps in Mozart or Beethoven’s scores, but Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy wrote some beautiful solo and orchestral music for the instrument.
On the harp, the shorter strings produce a higher sound, while the longer strings produce a lower sound. The long strings reach all the way down to C flat three octaves below middle C, while the shortest string sounds as the G flat three and a half octaves above middle C.
In technical terms, the instrument’s range is C flat 1 to G flat 7 – a huge six-and-a-half octaves, which is nearly the full range of a piano.
How to play
A harpist uses their right hand to play treble clef, and their left hand to play bass clef – just like a piano.
However, while pianos have white and black notes to signpost pitches, harps have red and black strings. Every red strings is a C, while every black string is an F.
To change note on a harp, the player presses down one of the instrument’s seven pedals, which control the pitches of its 47 strings. Each pedal is named after one note of the scale.
Unless the player is looking for a more experimental sound, the harp is usually played halfway between the strings, in the middle of the instrument.
Did you know?
The neck of a harp is under a lot of pressure. It carries nearly one tonne (1000kg) of tension in its strings.