A harp is a musical instrument consisting of a triangular frame open on both sides which contains a series of strings of varying lengths that are played by plucking. The length of the string determines how high or low a sound it makes. A modern concert harp stands about 70-75 in (1.8-1.9 m) high, is about 40 in (1 m) wide, weighs about 70-90 lb (32-41 kg), and has 47 strings, ranging in size from a few inches to several feet in length.
Smaller instruments similar to the harp include the lyre, which has strings of the same length but of varying thickness and tension; the psaltery, which has a frame open only on one side; and the dulcimer, which is similar to the psaltery but which is played by striking the strings with a hammer rather than plucking them.
The earliest harps probably developed from hunting bows and consisted of a few strings attached to the ends of a curved wooden body. A harp used in Egypt about five thousand years ago consisted of six strings attached to this kind of body with small wooden pegs. By 2500 B.C. , the Greeks used large harps, consisting of strings attached to two straight pieces of wood which met at an angle.
By the ninth century, frame harps, which enclosed wire strings within a triangular wooden frame, appeared in Europe. They were fairly small [2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 meters) high] and were used by traveling musicians, particularly in Celtic societies. Many performers of traditional music (who are usually known as harpers rather than harpists) still use this type of instrument today.
The inability of these harps to play accidentals (notes a half-tone higher or lower than the notes of the scale to which the strings were tuned) led to a number of experiments. Harps were built with extra strings to play accidentals, either by increasing the number of strings in a single row or by adding a second row of strings parallel to the first to form double strung harps. In Wales, some harps had three rows of strings.
Instead of increasing the number of strings, some harpmakers devised mechanisms for changing the length of the strings, thereby adjusting the pitch. By the end of the seventeenth century, hooks were used in the Tyrol region of Austria to shorten strings as needed, providing two notes from each string. In 1720, Celestin Hochbrucker added seven pedals to control these hooks. In 1750, Georges Cousineau replaced the hooks with pairs of metal plates and doubled the number of pedals to produce three notes per string.
In 1792, Sébastien Érard replaced the metal plates with rotating brass disks bearing two studs, each of which gripped the string like a fork when the disk turned. He also reduced the number of pedals back to seven by devising pedals which could occupy three different positions each. Érard's design is still used in modern concert harps today. In the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, innovations were made in harpmaking by the American harp manufacturing company Lyon and Healy. These innovations included redesigning the stave back and the sound chamber of the harp.
A harp is basically a large wooden triangle, usually made primarily of maple. The front, vertical side of the triangle is known as the column or the forepillar. The upper, curved side of the triangle is known as the neck. The third side of the triangle is known as the body. White maple is the best wood for these three sides because it is strong enough to withstand the stress of the strings. The soundboard, which is contained within the body and which amplifies the sound of the strings, is usually made of spruce. Spruce is used because it is light, strong, pliable, and evenly-grained, enabling it to respond uniformly to the vibrations of the strings to produce a rich, clear sound. The middle of the soundboard, known as the centerstrip, is attached to the base of the strings and is usually made of beech. Beech is used because it is tough enough to bear the tension of the strings.
The curved plate on the neck of the harp, to which the strings are attached, is made of brass. The disks which control the length of the strings are also brass, as are the pedals which control the disks. These external metal parts are often plated with gold for appearance and to resist tarnishing. The complex internal mechanism which connects the pedals to the disks, known as the action, is made of brass and stainless steel, with some parts such as washers made of a hard plastic such as nylon.
The strings of a harp are made of a variety of materials, including steel, gut (derived from the intestines of sheep), and nylon. Each material has different properties which make it suitable for a particular length of string.
The surface of a harp may be treated with clear lacquers or wood stains of various colors such as ebony or mahogany. It may also be inlaid with decorative woods such as walnut or avodire (a pale yellow West African wood). Some harps are gilded with 23 karat gold leaf. The soundboard may be decorated with paint or gold decals.
Each harp is a unique work of art. The design of the harp depends on the needs of the performer. Traditional harpers require small, light instruments with strings controlled by levers. Classical harpists require much larger instruments with strings controlled by pedals. The exterior design of harps varies from simple curves with natural finishes to intricate carvings with a wide variety of decorations ranging from abstract geometric designs to romantic floral displays.
Every step in the harpmaking process requires extreme attention to quality. Lumber is inspected for flaws. In particular, the spruce used for the soundboard is tested for its acoustic properties to ensure the quality of the sound it will produce. Each wooden component is individually inspected by a master harpmaker, then again after it has been sanded smooth for finishing. Metal components are also individually inspected. Those purchased from outside companies are inspected to ensure that they match the blueprints supplied by the harpmaker.
The strings are carefully tuned during the assembly process by an expert tuner. The action is tested to ensure that it is silent to avoid interfering with the music. The approximately 400 holes in the brass plate which holds the disks may be drilled by computer-controlled equipment to ensure accurate alignment. The harpmaker may choose to have a professional musician test each completed harp to ensure the quality of its sound.
Two seemingly contradictory trends hint at the future of the harp industry. Sparked by an increasing interest in Celtic music, more musicians are using harps similar to those used 1,000 years ago. On the other hand, many rock and jazz musicians are tuming to electric harps, which produce amplified sounds in a manner similar to electric guitars. Despite these trends, it seems likely that harps similar to those designed by Sebastien trard will continue to dominate the industry.
Gammond, Peter. Musical Instruments in Color. Macmillan, 1976.
Rensch, Rosalyn. Harps and Harpists. Indiana University Press, 1989.
Lyon and Healy. http://www.lyonhealy.com (July 9, 1997).
Strohmer, Shaun. "What Makes a Harp a Harp." http://harp.column.com/feature.html (September 25, 1996).
— Rose Secrest