Some Information About Harps

from The Harp and Dragon

Harps can be divided into categories, for instance pedal or nonpedal (the latter are often called lever harps). Pedal harps have seven foot pedals, each controlling all the strings on the harp for one of the seven notes in the octave, with three settings on each pedal, making it possible for each harp string to play a flat, natural or sharp note. Pedal harps are therefore fully chromatic instruments, able to be played in any key, like a piano. Nonpedal, or lever, harps have a lever of some sort at the top of each string which is manually flipped to sharpen that string a half tone. The strings can be flatted only by tuning them down in a lever harp, because the action of the lever shortens the vibrating string length, raising the pitch. Lever harps are therefore somewhat more limiting in the keys you can play in, and the repertoire that can be played on them.

Harps can also be divided into nylon/gut-strung or wire-strung. In general, pedal harps are strung in gut, with nylon in the top octave and wound wire strings in the bottom bass. Nonpedal harps in the U.S. are mostly strung entirely in nylon (although some people prefer gut) or in wire. It should be kept in mind that nylon- and wire-strung are entirely different types of harps, played with different techniques.

Nylon/gut-strung harps are plucked with the flesh of the fingertips, using standard modern harp technique. It should also be kept in mind that nylon/gut-strung harps also divide into two categories. Those that are made by the pedal-harp makers have the same heavy-weight strings as pedal harps, while those made by the folk harp makers have somewhat lighter strings. This makes a difference in the sound and construction of the two types of harps. Also: you must never put the heavier strings on the folk harps, because this can damage these harps.

Wire-strung harps are plucked with the fingernails. Most harpists/harpers today play nylon/gut-strung instruments, with a far smaller number playing wire. In general, if you are new to the harp, you will probably play a nylon-strung folk harp as your first instrument, unless you strongly wish to play a wire harp because it was historically the instrument of the ancient Irish.

The harp has been the most important musical instrument of the Celtic peoples since the dawn of their history. The earliest harps were quite primitive, but eventually by the seventh century the harps carved on stone monuments were depicted more like the instruments recognized as Celtic today. (It is the smaller instrument with the rounded front pillar that is usually called a Celtic harp.) However, it should be noted that, of the six Celtic peoples, the Welsh played a harp of a different shape from the 16th century on, the large triple-strung harp; and today the Welsh play largely the concert pedal harp for their traditional music. (It could be argued that the pedal harp is therefore every bit as much a Celtic instrument as the smaller harps.)


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