Harp Lessons | Chambers Music

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Harp Lessons

A harp is a stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicular to the soundboard. It is classified as a chordophone by the Harvard Dictionary of Music and only types of harps are in that class of instruments with plucked strings. All harps have a neck, resonator, and strings. Some, known as frame harps, also have a forepillar; those lacking the forepillar are referred to as open harps. Depending on its size (which varies considerably), a harp may be played while held in the lap or while it stands on the floor. Harp strings are made of nylon, gut, wire, or silk on certain instruments. A person who plays the harp is called a harpist or harper.

Various types of harps are found in Africa, Europe, North, and South America, and in Asia. In antiquity, harps and the closely related lyres were very prominent in nearly all cultures. The oldest harps found thus far have been uncovered in ruins from ancient Sumer. The harp also predominant in the hands of medieval bards, troubadors and minnesingers, as well as throughout the Spanish Empire. Harps continued to grow in popularity through improvements in their design and construction through the beginning of the twentieth century.

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.

Structure & Mechanism

Harps are roughly triangular and are usually made primarily of wood. The lower ends of the strings are fastened to the inside of the sounding-board, which is the outer surface of the resonating cavity. The body is hollow and resonates, projecting sound both toward the player through openings, and outward through the highly flexible sounding board. The crossbar, or neck, contains the mechanism or levers which determine the pitch alteration (sharps and flats) for each string. The upper ends of the strings are attached to pins in holes drilled through the neck. The longest side, the column, encloses the rods controlling the mechanism of a pedal harp. At the base are seven pedals, which activate the rods when they are downwardly pressed. The modern sophisticated instrument spanning 6½ octaves in virtually all keys was perfected by the 19th-century French maker Sébastien Érard.

Lever harps do not have pedals or rods. Instead they use a shortening lever on the neck for each individual string which must be activated manually in order to shorten the string and raise the tone a half step. Thus, a string tuned to natural may be played in sharp, but not flat. A string tuned to flat may be played in natural, but not sharp. Lever harps are considerably lighter in weight than pedal harps and are smaller in size and number of strings. Lever harps are popular for playing folk music and are most commonly called folk harps.

The harp lute or dital harp adapts the lever tuning system to a fretted instrument in the lute or guitar family.

The Concert / Pedal Harp

The concert harp is large and technically modern, designed for classical music and played solo, as part of chamber ensembles, and in symphony orchestras as well as in popular commercial music. It typically has six and a half octaves (46 or 47 strings), weighs about 80 pounds (36 kg; 5.7 st), is approximately 1.8 metres (5 ft 11 in) high, has a depth of 1.2 metres (3 ft 11 in), and is 55 centimetres (22 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. At least one manufacturer gives the harp a 48th string, a high A.

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, Venus 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 tension of the strings on the sound board is roughly equal to 10 kN (a ton-force) or 2,000 pounds. The lowest strings are made of copper or silver-over-silk over steel, the lower-middle strings of gut (from sheep or cows) and the upper-middle or highest of nylon.

Folk / Lever / Celtic Harp

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. Alan Stivell, with his father Jord Cochevelou (who recreated the Breton Celtic harp), were at the origin of the revival of the Celtic harp (in the 70s).

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 fluorocarbon, 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 C or 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.

Asiatic Harps

There are very few asiatic harps today, though the instrument was popular in ancient times; in this continent, zithers such as China’s guzheng and guqin and Japan’s koto predominate. However, a few harps exist, the most notable being Burma’s saung-gauk, which is considered the national instrument in that country. There was an ancient Chinese harp called konghou; the name is used for a modern Chinese instrument which is being revived. Turkey had a nine-string harp called the çeng that is in decline.