What is a harp? | Classical music

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What is a harp?

The harp is a plucked string instrument, broadly triangular in shape. Each string produces a note, and the gradation of string length from short to long corresponds to the pitch from high to low. The soundboard forms an angle almost perpendicular to the plane of the strings.

What does a harp look like and how many strings does it have?

The harp comes in many different shapes and sizes. A modern concert harp – used in orchestral music since the 19th century – typically has 47 strings with seven strings per octave, giving a range of six and a half octaves. This type of harp has seven pedals, which change the pitch of the strings, so it can easily play works written in any key.

The longer side of a modern harp is called the column or pillar, which serves to hold the neck against the tension of the strings. On pedal harps, the pillar is a hollow column and contains the rods that regulate the pitches.

Harp strings are often colored to provide a visual aid when playing. The lower strings are steel and the rest of the strings are usually gut.

The modern Celtic or folk harp, which appeared in Ireland in the early 19th century, is much smaller and shaped like an arch or bow. It has no pedals and can be played while resting on the knees. The strings are usually made of wire and are played with fingernails.

Reenactors playing Celtic harps on the porch of the Hill-McNeil store, New Salem, Illinois, 2006

When was the harp invented?

Harps were widely used in the ancient Mediterranean and the Middle East, and depictions survive from Egypt and Mesopotamia since 3000 BCE.

The instrument spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where it evolved into a wide range of types and variations. It was often depicted in Christian artwork as an instrument played by angels, and therefore developed a celestial association.

How do you play the harp?

The modern concert harp is played seated on a stool. The player uses the thumbs and the first three fingers of each hand to pluck the strings – the little finger is not long enough to be useful.

Chords on the harp are very common, played by plucking several strings at once – but must fit within reach of the harpist’s hand.

What are the most famous classical harp works?

The harp has featured in many classical works – solo, in chamber music and in orchestra. Famous works include Mozartthe Concerto for flute, harp and orchestra of; Handel’s Concerto for harp and orchestra; Donizetti’s harp solo from his opera Lucia of Lammermoor; the cadence of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Flower Waltz’ from his Nutcracker; and Debussy’s solo Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Main image: a concert or pedal harp © Metropolitan Museum of Art

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