Various types of harps are found in Africa, Europe, North, and South America, and a few parts of Asia. In antiquity harps and the closely related lyres were very prominent in nearly all musical cultures, but they lost popularity in the early 19th century with Western music composers, being thought of primarily as a woman's instrument after Marie Antoinette popularised it as an activity for women.
The aeolian harp (wind harp), the autoharp, and all forms of the lyre and Kithara are not harps because their strings are not perpendicular to the soundboard; they are part of the zither family of instruments along with the piano and harpsichord. In blues music, the Harmonica is called a "Blues harp" or "harp", but it is a free reed wind instrument, not a stringed instrument.
Harps were most likely independently invented in many parts of the world in remote prehistory. It is often said that the harp's origins may lie in the sound of a plucked hunter's bow string; the converse is equally possible. A type of harp called a 'bow harp' is nothing more than a bow like a hunter's, with a resonating vessel such as a gourd fixed somewhere along its length. To allow a greater number of strings, harps were later made from two pieces of wood attached at the ends: this type is known as the 'angle harp'.
The oldest depictions of harps without a forepillar are from 4000 BCE in Egypt(see Music of Egypt) and 3000 BCE in Persia (see Music of Iran). While most English translations of the Bible feature the word 'harp', especially in connection with King David, the Hebrew word is actually nevel, a type of lyre with 10 strings and not a harp at all. The kanun is a descendant of the ancient Egyptian harp and was introduced to Europe by the Moors during the Middle Ages.
Angle harps and bow harps continue to be used up to the present day. In Europe however a further development took place: adding a third structural member, the pillar, to support the far ends of the arch and sound box. The 'Triangular Frame harp' is depicted in manuscripts and sculpture from about the 8th century CE, especially in North-West Europe, though specific nationalistic claims to the invention of the triangular frame harp cannot be substantiated.
European harps in medieval and Renaissance times usually had bray pinsfitted to make a buzzing sound when a string was plucked. By the baroque period in Italy and Spain more strings were added to allow for chromatic notes; these were usually in a second line of strings. At the same time single-row diatonic harps continued to be played.
In Germany in the second half of the 17th century, diatonic single-row harps were fitted with manually-turned hooks which fretted individual strings to raise their pitch by a half step. In the 1700s, a link mechanism was developed connecting these hooks with pedals, leading to the invention of the single-action pedal harp. Later, a second row of hooks was installed along the neck to allow for the double-action pedal harp, capable of raising the pitch of a string by either one or two half steps. The idea was even extended to triple-action harps but these were never common. The double-action pedal harp remains the normal form of the instrument in the Western classical orchestra.
There are many different kinds of harp in Africa. They do not have forepillars and so are either bow harps or angle harps. As well as true harps such as Mauritania's ardin, there are a number of instruments that are difficult to classify, often being labelled harp-lutes. Another term for them is spike harps. The West African kora is the best known. The strings run from a string arm to a 'spike' and the resonating chamber is attached to the base of the spike.
Most European-derived harps have a single row of strings with strings for each note of the C Major scale (over several octaves). Harpists can tell which strings they are playing because all F strings are black or blue and all C strings are red or orange. The instrument rests between the knees of the harpist and along their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Irish and Scottish harps, however, are traditionally placed on the left shoulder (in order to have it over the heart).
The first four fingers of each hand are used to pluck the strings; the little fingers are too short and cannot reach the correct position without distorting the position of the other fingers, although on some folk harps with light tension, closely spaced strings, they may occasionally be used. Also, the little finger is not strong enough to pluck a string. Plucking with varying degrees of force creates dynamics. Depending on finger position, different tones can be produced: a fleshy pluck (near the middle of the first finger joint) will make a warm tone, while a pluck near the end of the finger will make a loud, bright sound.
The concert harp is large and technically modern, designed for classical music and played solo, as part of chamber ensembles, and in symphony orchestras. It typically has six and a half octaves (46 or 47 strings), weighs about 80lb (36 kg), is approximately 1.8 m (6 ft) high, has a depth of 1.2 m (4 ft), and is 55 cm (21.5 in) wide at the bass end of the soundboard. The notes range from three octaves below middle C (or the D above) to three and a half octaves above, usually ending on G. Using octave designations, the range is C1 or D1 to G7.
The tension of the strings on the sound board is roughly equal to a 10 kNs (a ton-force). The lowest strings are made of copper or steel-wound nylon, the middle strings of gut and the highest of nylon. This is not to say that strings in the higher register are not produced in gut or that middle strings are not produced in nylon. The middle gut string and high nylon string setting is mainly because gut strings usually carry a higher price than nylon strings; they also fray and break more frequently than nylon strings. However, gut strings produce fuller sounds than nylon strings do. The strings in the higher register are thinner and break more frequently. In the case of a broken string, replacing it with the same type (gut or nylon) is recommended, for a change in the type can be noticeable. For example, in a sequence of strings such as gut-gut-nylon-gut-gut, the nylon string's sound may stand out from the gut strings' sounds.
The concert harp is a pedal harp. Pedal harps use the mechanical action of pedals to change the pitches of the strings. There are seven pedals, each affecting the tuning of all strings of one letter-name, and each pedal is attached to a rod or cable within the column of the harp, which then connects with a mechanism within the neck. When a pedal is moved with the foot, small discs at the top of the harp rotate. The discs are studded with two pegs that pinch the string as they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The pedal has three positions. In the top position no pegs are in contact with the string and all notes are flat; thus the harp's native tuning is to the scale of C-flat major.
In the middle position the top wheel pinches the string, resulting in a natural, giving the scale of C major if all pedals are set in the middle position. In the bottom position another wheel is turned, shortening the string again to create a sharp, giving the scale of C-sharp major if all pedals are set in the bottom position. Many other scales, both diatonic and synthetic, can be obtained by adjusting the pedals differently from each other; also, many chords in traditional harmony can be obtained by adjusting pedals so that some notes are enharmonic equivalents of others, and this is central to harp technique. In each position the pedal can be secured in a notch so that the foot does not have to keep holding it in the correct position.
This mechanism is called the double-action pedal system, invented by Sébastien Érard in 1810. Earlier pedal harps had a single-action mechanism that allowed strings to play sharpened notes. Lyon and Healy, Camac Harps, and other manufacturers also make electric pedal harps. The electric harp is a concert harp, with piezoelectric pickups at the base of each string and an amplifier. Electric harps can be a blend of electric and acoustic, with the option of using an amplifier or playing the harp just like a normal pedal harp, or can be entirely electric, lacking a soundbox and being mute without an amplifier.
The Salzedo method, developed by Carlos Salzedo, uses expressive gestures, and the performer keeps his or her elbows parallel to the ground. The French method advocated by Marcel Grandjany does not use expressive gestures; the elbows are held at an angle, and the wrists may occasionally rest upon the soundboard. In both methods, the shoulders, neck, and back are relaxed. On the wire-strung clarsach, a "thumb under" technique is also used.
Baroque harp, as in other Baroque instrumental techniques, uses strong and weak articulation. The player only uses three fingers of each hand, and the thumb moves under the other fingers, rather than being held very high as in modern harp technique. The thumb and third fingers are "strong" fingers and the second finger is a "weak" finger. Scales are fingered with alternating strong and weak fingers—that is, a scale fingering could be either 1 2 1 2 1 2 or 3 2 3 2 3 2. In contrast, classical harp technique uses a fingering of 4 3 2 1 4 3 2 1 going up and 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 going down.
Another approach to "thumb under" technique as described above is to place the thumb so that it passes over the second finger, rather than under it. There is equal evidence for both thumb over and thumb under playing techniques on historical harps.
In this second approach it is important to note that the fingers are placed on the strings halfway up the string from the soundboard. This may be as little as 5-8 inches on very lightly strung harps. If you begin by making a circle with your thumb and second finger, placing both the thumb and the second finger on the same string, open your thumb and place your thumb on the string above, also placing the third (and fourth – if you choose to use it) on the neighboring strings below the second finger. The fingertips placed on the strings should loosely form a straight line parallel to the soundboard of the harp.
Many passages for solo harp can be found in 19th century ballet music, which utilized the harp to a great extent in order to embellish the dancing of the ballerina. Elaborate cadenzas for harp were composed by Tchaikovsky for his ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty; as well as Alexander Glazunov for his score for the ballet Raymonda, which contains the variation titled Une fantaisie (a.k.a. Prélude et variations) which many modern conservatories utilize for the application and audition process.
In particular, the scores of Riccardo Drigo contained many compositions for harp which were renowned in their day (found in such works as Le Talisman and Les Millions d'Arlequin), as well as Cesare Pugni, whose ballets Éoline, ou La Dryade and Ondine, ou la Naïad included music written for harp to accompany the ballerina's numerous variations and enhance the atmosphere of the ballet's many fantastical scenes.
See the List of compositions for harp for the names of some notable pieces from the classical repertoire.
Alan Stivell is a well-known crossover and Celtic harpist. He first recorded an EP record, "Musique Gaélique," in 1959, then an LP in 1964 called "Telenn Geltiek " (available in CD). Following these, he has released 21 other albums including his harps, from 1970 until now (the last one is "Explore" - 2006- ). He recorded also some albums specially dedicated to the harp: the famous "Renaissance of the Celtic Harp" (1972), "Harpes du Nouvel Age" (1985), and "Beyond Words" (2002). He helped to promote developments in Electro-acoustic and Electric harps.
In the 1970s, a harp was common in popular music, and can be heard in such hits as Cher's Dark Lady and the intro of Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves. Most often this was played by Los Angeles studio harpist Gayle Levant, who has played on hundreds of recordings. In current pop music, the harp appears relatively rarely. Joanna Newsom, Dee Carstensen, Darian Scatton, Habiba Doorenbos, Jessa Callen of The Callen Sisters and Oona McOuat have separately established images as harp-playing singer-songwriters with signature harp and vocal sounds. Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan plays the harp in her 2006 holiday album, Wintersong. In Hong Kong, a notably example of harp in pop music is the song Tin Shui Walled City (天水圍城) performed by Hacken Lee with harp played by Korean harpist Jung Kwak (Harpist K).
A pedal harpist, Ricky Rasura, is a member of the "symphonic pop" band, The Polyphonic Spree. Also, Björk sometimes features acoustic and electric harp in her work, often played by Zeena Parkins. Philadelphia based Indie Pop Band Br'er uses a pedal harp as the foundation for their cinematic live sets. Art in America was the first known rock band featuring a pedal harp to appear on a major record label, and released only one record, in 1983. The pedal harp was also present in the Michael Kamen and Metallica concert and album, S&M, as part of the San Francisco Symphony orchestra. R&B singer Maxwell featured harpist Gloria Agostini in 1997 on his cover of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work". On his 7th solo album Finding Forever, Hip- Hop artist Common features harpist Brandee Younger on the introductory track, followed by a Dorothy Ashby sample from her 1969 recording of The Windmills of Your Mind. Some Celtic-pop crossover bands and artists such as Clannad and Loreena McKennitt include folk harps, following Alan Stivell's work.
The folk harp or Celtic harp is small to medium-sized and usually designed for traditional music; it can be played solo or with small groups. It is prominent in Welsh, Breton, Irish, Scottish and other Celtic cultures within traditional or folk music and as a social and political symbol. Often the folk harp is played by beginners who wish to move on to the pedal harp at a later stage, or by musicians who simply prefer the smaller size or different sounds.
The folk or lever harp ranges in size from two octaves to six octaves, and uses levers or blades to change pitch. The most common size has 34 strings: Two octaves below middle C and two and a half above (ending on A), although folk or lever harps can usually be found with anywhere from 19 to 40 strings. The strings are generally made of nylon, gut, carbon fiber or flourocarbon, or wrapped metal, and are plucked with the fingers using a similar technique to the pedal harp.
Folk harps with levers installed have a lever close to the top of each string; when it is engaged, it shortens the string so its pitch is raised a semitone, resulting in a sharped note if the string was a natural, or a natural note if the string was a flat. Lever harps are often tuned to the key of E-flat. Using this scheme, the major keys of E-flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, A, and E can be reached by changing lever positions, rather than re-tuning any strings. Many smaller folk harps are tuned in C or F, and may have no levers, or levers on the F and C strings only, allowing a narrower range of keys. Blades and hooks perform almost the same function as levers, but use a different mechanism. The most common type of lever is either the Camac or Truitt lever although Loveland levers are still used by some makers.
One of the attendant problems with lever harps is the potential loss of quality when the levers are used. The Teifi semi tone developed by Allan Shiers is a development from traditional mechanisms and nips up the string with two forks similarly to a concert harp. The semi tone is double locking for a full clear sound and does not wear the string. It is machined from solid brass and hardened steel and is adjustable by an eccentric roller to suit any gauge of string. In addition, the whole unit can be moved up or down to affect perfect pitch and string alignment. The lever arms are coloured for ease of note recognition and two sizes are made to suit treble, mid and bass. Alan Stivell, with his father Jord Cochevelou (who recreate the Breton Celtic harp), were at the origin of the revival of the Celtic harp (in the 50s).
The Laser harp is also not a stringed instrument, it is a harp-shaped electronic instrument with laser beams where harps have strings.
The Gaelic wire-strung harp was originally called a cruit but changed in the 14th century to (Gd.) Clàir Shioleach or willow board and later in Middle Irish as Cláirseach in (Irish) versions. The origins go back at least the first millennium. There are several stone carvings of harps from the 10th century, many of which have simple triangular shapes, generally with straight pillars, straight string arms or necks, and soundboxes. There is stone carving evidence that supports the theory that the harp was present in Ireland and Gaelic/Pictish Scotland well before the 9th century.
The harp was the most popular musical instrument in later medieval Scotland and Ireland and Gaelic poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.
Scotland, because of her affinity and intercourse [with Ireland], tries to imitate Ireland in music and strives in emulation. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the harp namely, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the harp, the tympanum and the crowd. In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances her and excels her in musical skill. Therefore, [Irish] people now look to that country as the fountain of the art.
The harp played by the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland between the 11th and 19th centuries was certainly wire-strung. The Irish Maedoc Book Shrine dates from the 11th century, and clearly shows a harper with a triangular framed harp including a "T-Section" in the pillar and the word Lamhchrann in Scottish Gaelic and Irish comes into use to indicate the bracing that would have been required to withstand the tension of a wire-strung harp.
The Irish and Highland Harps by Robert Bruce Armstrong is an excellent book describing these ancient harps. There is historical evidence that the types of wire used in these harps are iron, brass, silver, and gold. Three pre-16th century examples survive today; the Trinity College harp in Ireland, and the Queen Mary and Lamont harps, both in Scotland.
One of the largest and most complete collections of 17th century harp music is the work of Turlough O'Carolan, a blind, itinerant Irish harper and composer. At least 220 of his compositions survive to this day.
Since the 1970s, the tradition has been revived. Alan Stivell's "Renaissance de la harpe celtique" (perhaps the best-seller harp album in the world), using mainly the bronze strung harp, and his tours, has brought the instrument into the ears and the love of many people. Ann Heymann has revived the ancient tradition and technique by playing the instrument as well as studying Bunting's original manuscripts in the library of Queens University, Belfast. Katie Targett-Adams (KT-A) is currently leading the modern day crossover movement for the clarsach, performing to mainstream audiences across the globe, notably China. Other high profile players include Patrick Ball, Cynthia Cathcart, Alison Kinnaird, Bill Taylor, Siobhán Armstrong and others.
As performers have become interested in the instrument, harp makers ("luthiers") such as Jay Witcher, David Kortier, Ardival Harps, Joël Herrou and others have begun building wire-strung harps. The traditional wire materials are used, however iron has been replaced by steel and the modern phosphor bronze has been added to the list. The phosphor bronze and brass are most commonly used. Steel tends to be very abrasive to the nails. Silver and gold are used to get high density materials into the bass courses of high quality clàrsachs to greatly improve their tone quality. In the period, no sharping devices were used. Harpers had to re-tune strings to change keys. This practice is reflected by most of the modern luthiers, yet some allow provisions for either levers or blades.
A double-strung harp consists of two rows of diatonic strings one on either side of the neck. These strings may run parallel to each other or may converge so the bottom ends of the strings are very close together. Either way, the strings that are next to each other are tuned to the same note. Double-strung harps often have levers either on every string or on the most commonly sharped strings, for example C and F. Having two sets of strings allows the harpist's left and right hands to occupy the same range of notes without having both hands attempt to play the same string at the same time. It also allows for special effects such as repeating a note very quickly without stopping the sound from the previous note.
A triple harp features three rows of parallel strings, two outer rows of diatonic strings, and a center row of chromatic strings. To play a sharp, the harpist reaches in between the strings in either outer row and plucks the center row string. Like the double-strung harp, the two outer rows of strings are tuned the same, but the triple-strung harp has no levers. This harp originated in Italy in the 16th century as a low headed instrument, and towards the end of 1600s it arrived in Wales where it developed a high head and larger size. It established itself as part of Welsh tradition and became known as the Welsh harp (telyn deires, "three-row harp"). The traditional design has all of the strings strung from the left side of the neck, but modern neck designs have the two outer rows of strings strung from opposite sides of the neck to greatly reduce the tendency for the neck to roll over to the left.
The cross-strung harp consists of one row of diatonically tuned strings and another row of chromatic notes. These strings cross approximately in the middle of the string without touching. Traditionally the diatonic row runs from the right (as seen by someone sitting at the harp) side of the neck to the left side of the sound board. The chromatic row runs from the left of the neck to the right of the sound board. The diatonic row has the normal string coloration for a harp, but the chromatic row may be black. The chromatic row is not a full set of strings. It is missing the strings between the Es and Fs in the diatonic row and between the Bs and Cs in the diatonic row. In this respect it is much like a piano. The diatonic row corresponds to the white keys and the chromatic row to the black keys. Playing each string in succession results in a complete chromatic scale.
The harp has been used as a political symbol of Ireland for centuries. Its origin is from the time of Brian Boru, a famous 'High King' of the whole island of Ireland who played the harp. In Celtic society every clan would have a resident harp player who would write songs in honour of the leader. These were called Planxties. This evolved and would eventually be adapted as a symbol and representation of the Irish people, and under English occupation. It was used to symbolize Ireland in the Royal Standard of King James VI/I of Scotland, England and Ireland in 1603 and had continued to feature on all English, British and United Kingdom Royal Standards ever since, though the style of harp used differed on some Royal Standards. It was also used on the Commonwealth Jack of Oliver Cromwell, issued in 1649 and on the Protectorate Jack issued in 1658 as well as on the Lord Protector's Standard issued on the succession of Richard Cromwell in 1658. The harp is also traditionally used on the flag of Leinster.
From 1922, the Irish Free State continued to use a similar harp, facing left, as its state symbol on the Great Seal of the Irish Free State, featuring it both on the coat of arms and on the Presidential Standard and Presidential Seal - as well as on various other official seals and documents. This was based on the harp in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, which was badly restored in the 1840s. Since it was fully rebuilt in 1961, it is seen to be wider at the base of the soundbox but this has gone unnoticed by Irish officials. The harp also appears on Irish coinage from the Middle Ages to the current Irish euro coins.
Relatively new organizations also use the harp, but often modified to reflect a theme relevant to their organization, for instance; Irish airline Ryanair uses a modified harp, somewhat in the form of an angel taking flight, and the Irish State Examinations Commission uses it with an educational theme. Popular music acts have also adopted the symbol of the harp such as Irish rock band Keltica who use a futuristic version they call the "Electra-Harp" as a band logo
Other organizations in Ireland use the harp, but not always prominently; these include the National University of Ireland and the associated University College Dublin, and the Gaelic Athletic Association. In Northern Ireland the Police Service of Northern Ireland and Queen's University of Belfast use the harp as part of their identity.