The Harp

Another article not about tents, for a change

This article had its genesis in a handout I use in the "Harp 0.101 -- An Introduction to the Harp" class I occasionally teach for the SCA.

Section I. The History of the Harp

The harp's origins are lost in the Mists of Time ... so misty, in fact, that it is impossible to say when (or where) the first harp-like instruments were invented, what they looked like, or at what point these precursors became the instrument that we call the modern harp. But this lack of data has never stopped anybody from conjecture, so why should it stop me?

The first harp was probably the archer's bow. At some point, some prehistoric genius put a second string on the bow, to have more than a single monotonous drone, and so became the first luthier. (A luthier is a maker of any stringed instrument, and not just lutes.)

Following the dictum that more is better (a philosophy not entirely unknown in our own time), more and more strings were added, and eventually it was found that by enlarging and hollowing out one end of the bow to fashion a sound-box, a greater volume and better tone would result. The result was the Egyptian bow harp, of which there are many examples in Egyptian tomb art and even fragments of the actual specimen.

While the Egyptians were perfecting the bow harp, the Assyrians were developing a version of their own. Their version was called the angle harp, and represents the next approximation to the modern harp. The angle harp differs from what we call the harp today in only two important respects: it lacked the front-piece we call the column (also called the fore-pillar), and it was played "upside down" from its present orientation, with the tuning pegs on the bottom. The Egyptians, recognizing a good thing when they saw it, started making angle harps of their own.

In other parts of the Mediterranean, other people were busy inventing the lyre and the psaltery. I mention these instruments only because they are often confused with the harp in literature, and writers of the time failed to distinguish exactly which instrument was being referred to. To complicate things, the names they gave their instruments are not the names we give those instruments today. (The words "psaltery" and "harp" both come from words that mean "to pluck," so either instrument could conceivably be called by either name.) The best we can hope to do, then, is note what instruments are depicted in their art, and ignore the written record.

It was the appearance of the column that marked the advent of the modern harp. It solved two problems at one stroke. First, it allowed the harpmaker to increase string tensions tremendously without distorting the harp frame. Secondly, it made the harp far easier to tune, because changing the tension of one string no longer affected the tension of all the other strings. Now harps could be built with more strings, and those strings could carry higher tensions, and thus deliver greater volume and sweeter tone.

When did this revolutionary change occur, and where? We don't know. All we know for sure is that it first showed up in stone carvings in the British Isles around the end of the eighth century. It has been suggested that it was a Norse invention, because it appeared in various areas at just about the time that the Vikings were raiding those neighborhoods. But if that was the case, it is curious that we find no Scandinavian representations dating to that time, or for several centuries afterward. The earliest depiction of a harp that clearly shows a column is on a stone carving in Ross, Scotland, and dated to the second half of the eighth century.

The ninth-century Utrecht Psalter shows what appear to be harps with columns, although it's hard to be sure. It's interesting that when this scene was duplicated in the Harley Psalter, dated about two centuries later, the artist of the latter work found it necessary to show the harp with a column in a copy that was otherwise pretty close to the original. Perhaps, by that time, the column harp had become so prevalent that the copyist thought that the first picture must have been in error. It is certain that by the early tenth century, the angle harp had pretty much disappeared in most of Europe.

By the second millennium, this new-fangled column harp was being found on the Continent. In Germany, it was called a "Cythara Angelica" to distinguish it from the "Cythara Teutonica," a type of lyre. (As you may expect, the name "cythara" was the root of the words "zither," "guitar" and even "sitar," none of which look remotely like a harp.) In form, it was essentially the harp we have today, except that the neck (the arm that the strings are attached to) was likely to be straight rather than curved. By the 11th or 12th century, the neck begins to assume the contours of what we call the "harmonic curve" which attempted to more closely match the string's length with its frequency (or pitch. The harps in illustrations from the Continent were usually "high-headed" harps, where the head (the junction of the neck and column) is higher than the top of the soundbox. Those in the Celtic-influenced areas of the British Isles are usually "low-headed" harps, where the head is about as high as the body of the harp. This may have had something to do with the strings used.

There is a persistent conception that the British harps used metal strings and the continental harps used gut strings. There might be a germ of truth in this, as it might explain the difference in contours; metal strings typically run at higher tensions and therefore require a more robust and compact frame. But this is speculation. There are also references to "harps" strung with horsehair or flax, but remember that we can't be sure that the writers were referring to harps instead of some other plucked instrument.

The oldest surviving instruments represent the Celtic branch of the family, and date from the 13th to the 15th century. They are low-headed harps designed for metal strings. An example is the "Brian Boru" harp now in the Trinity College of Dublin.

Medieval harps were probably tuned diatonically, without sharps or flats. By the end of the medieval era, this arrangement was not sufficient to play the music that was coming into fashion. The solution was to run another row of strings in a plane parallel to the first row, to handle the accidental notes. The "double-strung" harps became popular, and variations of them are still made today and figure prominently in traditional Welsh music.

It was not the ideal solution, but it sufficed until the 17th century with the advent of the modern concert harps, which used pedal-operated hooks (later cams) to change the string's "sounding length" and vibrating frequency.

Another way to change the pitch of a string, first used in the nineteenth century, is to attach individual "sharping" levers to each string. Today's folk harps commonly use such levers. They aren't "period," but they make it far easier to play in different keys, and with different instruments.

Section II: Playing the Harp

There are really only three rules:

1. Enjoy yourself. Don't be afraid. It is almost impossible to make bad-sounding music on a well-tuned harp. Try everything. The harp will show you what works and what doesn't. Even exploratory noodlings sound fine.

2. Keep the harp tuned. It is almost impossible to make good-sounding music on a poorly tuned harp. Be sure to purchase and carry a spare tuning key, because it is inevitable that the key will come up missing at the time you need it most.

3. Don't hurt yourself. A lot of serious harpists are finding out the hard way that using the "classical" form of hand posture and plucking can lead to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and similar stress-related soreness. If you're playing the pedal harp in an orchestra, you need this playing style to achieve the volume and projection you need to be heard over the tubas. I know you won't be playing the Met anytime soon, but I'm mentioning this because some harp teachers insist on everybody using this style, and aren't aware of the health hazards involved. The remedy is simple. If you're starting to get sore, stop. Relax. Take it slower, and get professional advice if the problem keeps recurring.

Section III: Tuning the Harp

Tuning the harp isn't difficult, just tedious.

To make life a little easier for you, nylon strings are usually color-coded. The C's are red, and the F's are blue. Those with metal strings may want to buy paint-marking pens (such as "Testors Paint Markers" or "Uchida DecoColor Paint Markers") from your hobby store in these colors and paint your strings. You can even use "Magic Markers" or "Sharpies" in a pinch, but they're not as visible and don't last as long. If your harp has tuning pins that go all the way through the neck, you'll notice that you'll put the tuning wrench on the opposite side of the neck from where the string is. Sure is confusing, isn't it? All those pins look alike, with not a clue as to which pin goes with which string. I recommend you get some paint (or fingernail polish) in the appropriate colors, and paint the pin to match the string that goes onto it. If you're not blessed with perfect pitch, you'll also need some way of determining whether a string is in pitch. It's easiest to use a tuning meter, a little device that listens to the note and tells you whether it's sharp (too high) or flat (too low). Or you can also use a pitch-pipe, penny-whistle, or one or more tuning forks, to give you a reference note. (A grand piano also works fine, but it's a little hard to carry around with you.)

With either method, you turn the tuning pin with the wrench until the string is at the pitch you want it to be. If the harp has been properly strung, you'll be moving the top of the wrench away from you to tighten the string (and raise the pitch) and toward you to loosen the string (and lower the pitch). (Harps which use zither pins that don't go all the way through the neck will sometimes be set up so that these directions are reversed.) The only thing to be careful about is having your wrench on the proper tuning pin. If you turn the wrench and you don't hear a change in pitch, stop right there! You're on the wrong pin. It's very easy to keep cranking on that wrong pin until the string breaks! So put the string back where it was, locate the right pin and continue.

If the pin won't turn easily, give it a good twist in the loosening direction to free the pin, and then bring the string back up to pitch. If the string is just the tiniest bit sharp, you might want to stretch it slightly by pushing on it with your finger.

Tuning the highest strings can sometimes require the touch of a safe-cracker, particularly with the wire-strung harps. A tuning key with a nice long handle is what you need.

Once you've got all the strings tuned, go back and check them again. You'll probably find that some of them are now flat, particularly if the strings are new. (On the more lightly-constructed harps, this is also because the collective tension on the strings is pulling downward on the neck, causing it to deflect just enough to slacken the first strings you tensioned.) Just retune until all the strings stay in pitch. New strings may take up to two weeks to break in.

If a harp string doesn't want to stay in tune, despite all your efforts, it usually means that the tuning peg is slipping in its hole. To seat it well, push inward on the peg as you turn it. If that trick doesn't work, it means that the hole the peg fits into is too smooth and shiny to achieve the proper friction. You'll have to remove the peg and go into the hole with a small round file or some sandpaper to roughen the surface a little. If it's still slipping, bum some rosin from a violinist or a baseball pitcher and put it in the hole, and then replace the pin.

Whatever you do, NEVER NEVER NEVER pound on the pin to seat it better. You may end up cracking the neck of the harp, which means major repairs and big bucks.

Section IV: Care and Feeding of Harps

The first rule is not to expose it to extremes in temperature and humidity. Remember that a quality harp has a lot of tension on the soundboard (even a very small one has around 500 pounds, and a midsized folk harp can have as much as 1000 pounds). It doesn't take much of a knock to do serious damage to a harp. So keep it out of hot cars (the glue used to hold many harps together melts at around 140° F (60° C), and it can get lots hotter than that in a closed car in the summer.) Pad it when you transport it. Don't let it get wet. A safe rule of thumb is to keep the harp out of temperature ranges where you wouldn't feel comfortable yourself. You also want to keep it in an environment of around 50% humidity. If you live where it gets a lot drier than that for long periods of time, you can buy humidifying doodads at music stores.

Keep your harp in tune. The conventional wisdom now is that you shouldn't need to de-tune your harp for travel as long as it's properly protected. If you want that extra margin of safety (like when you're shipping it via carrier and they can't guarantee easy treatment.), you can reduce the pressure on the sound board about 15-20% by tuning the harp down a note.

If you're putting a new string set on your harp or otherwise drastically changing the tension on a lot of strings, be patient. It's asking a lot of the harp's frame to go from carrying zero pounds of tension to carrying hundreds of pounds in a short time. For the first day, just bring all the strings up to enough tension to take the slop out of them. On the second day, bring them up to within two full notes of where they're supposed to be. Increase the tension by a semitone each day until the harp is at the intended pitch. A harp string operates within a narrow range of tension. Too little and it sounds "twangy" like a rubber band and doesn't have the right feel; too much and it either breaks or puts too much stress on the sound-board. When you're replacing strings, strictly follow the manufacturer's string recommendations, and don't substitute heavier strings for lighter ones. If you want to change the stringing of the harp to a different range of notes, you can't simply tune the harp up or down without seriously altering the tension on the frame. By all means, contact the harpmaker for advice on what you can change, and what you can't. The chances are that a lot of skull sweat has been put into determining the ideal range for your particular harp, and you leave that range at your peril (or your harp's peril, anyway).

Don't use furniture polish on the harp. If you have tarnishing wire strings on your harp, you can use #0000 steel wool on them to polish them, but don't use chemical cleaners.

Section V: Sources for Further Information


Roslyn Rensch, The Harp: Its History, Technique and Repertoire (1969, The Garden City Press Limited, Letchworth, Hertfordshire, UK)

Written mostly for the concert harpist, the book covers ancient and medieval harps extensively.

Hortense Panum, The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages (1940, 1971, Lowe and Brydone Ltd., London)

This book is gold! It's he best-researched book on the subject I've ever seen. All your questions are answered about every medieval European stringed instrument.

Sylvia Woods, Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp (Available from the author at 915 Glendale Ave., Glendale CA 91206).

Is there anybody who didn't use or recommend this book as a primer? It's still the best one, and you can also get a companion cassette tape and a videotape.


International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen, Inc.,9410 FM 1960 W, Houston TX 77070

This group is the biggest and oldest source of information on contemporary folk harps. Membership is $22, which gets you their quarterly magazine, the Folk Harp Journal. The ISFHC is a good place to learn about folk harps, where to get them, and how to play them.

Here's a link to their site.

The Historical Harp Society

631 N. 3rd Ave., St. Charles IL 60174

This group is a bit more scholarly than the ISFHC; it focuses on early music and not the current scene. Membership is $18, which includes a triennial newsletter.

And here's the link to their site.

Both of these organizations have a Facebook presence as well.

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Other articles of interest, mostly about tents and tentmaking

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