The Harp: History & Explanation

Instructor: Catherine King
In this lesson, we will learn about a stringed instrument called a harp - one of the oldest instruments in the world. We will explore the history of this instrument and how it is played. There will be a short quiz at the end of the lesson to test your knowledge.


The harp is a multi-stringed musical instrument, or chordophone, that has a resonator (or soundboard) that vibrates with the movement of the strings, producing the sound of the notes. There are several different kinds of harps: there are framed harps, open harps, and folk harps, just to name a few. The strings can be made from silk, gut (made from the small intestines of sheep), nylon, or wire. A harp's strings run perpendicular to the resonator. Each string plays one note; the longer strings play lower notes, and the shorter strings play higher pitched notes. The harp has a range of more than six octaves.

Harp Diagram
harp diagram

History of the Harp

Harps were widely used in the ancient Mediterranean and the Middle East from about 3000 B.C.E. Harps resembling hunting bows were found on wall paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs.

Over the years, the harp went through several changes, one being the addition of the pillar sometime in the Middle Ages. The pillar (or column) acts like a support beam, which enabled harp makers to use stronger string materials, like copper and brass. These tougher materials provided a louder, longer tone.

Beginning around 1770 A.D., pedals appeared on harps, enabling the use of sharp notes. The pedals were housed in the resonator, and when depressed, they connected to hooks that would sharpen the strings of the same note. The photo below clearly shows the pedals at the bottom of the harp.

Harp Pedals
two girls playing harp

With the folk music revival of the start of the 20th century, the Celtic frame harp was revived in a slightly different form. Gut or nylon strings were used instead of metal. On the neck, there are levers that can be used to sharpen individual strings to allow the playing of music in sharp keys. These harps generally have no more than 36 strings.

Celtic Harp
Celtic Harp

Harps have a long history, and they are still popular in modern music today. Orchestras sometimes make use of the harp, depending on the musical piece being presented. Stravinsky's 'Firebird Suite' is a good example.

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