History of the Harp

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Learn About the History of the Harp

The Therapeutic Harp Foundation became the only organization in Arizona that provides the rare service of certified harp therapy to patients facing devastating illness.

Harps today are a product of centuries of development from their ancient origins. Images of harps abound in art and manuscripts date as far back as 3000 B.C.

Harps were originally very simple, being made up of two pieces; a sound box and a string arm. The strings were strung between these two pieces, then wound around the string arm. These angular harps are most associated with the Far and Middle East.

In the West, the harp was given a third piece, a fore pillar to transform into a triangular instrument. The harp was also given tuning pegs, around which the strings were wound

Finally, the fore pillar evolved from straight to curved, and then the pedal harp went back to straight. Depictions of early harps show that in some cultures, the harp was played on the left shoulder, with the left hand playing in the treble range and the right hand playing in the bass range. The harp was also, in some places, played by fingernails.

If you mention the harp to anyone today, one of two images might come to mind. Some might picture the pedal harp which is commonly found in modern orchestras, while others might imagine an iconographic image of an Irish harp.

A Difference in Sound

Harps on the European continent differed from harps in the British Isles. The Irish and Scottish played on harps strung with metal wire, while the European continent strung harps with gut. 

Some harps featured brays or bray pins which are pieces of wood that were used to distort the sound of the string into a twangier or buzzing timbre. 

As the modern ear moved away from the antiquated sounds of medieval modal music and music developed more chromaticism, the harp attempted to adapt to new changes.
  • Adding more strings
  • Increasing the amount of rows of strings that you can find on the Spanish Arpa de dos órdenes and the Welsh Triple Harp
  • Adding hooks, levers, and dials to allow the note of a single string to be manually raised by a semitone
This finally gave rise around the year 1700 to add pedals which allow for hands-free chromatic adjustments. 

The first pedal harp, known as a single action pedal harp, could only raise or lower a given string by a semi-tone, allowing music to be played in sharp keys.

The Evolving Harp

Around the year 1800, Baroque music was very much in style and demanded an instrument that can be played as an intricate counterpoint. 

In 1810, the double action pedal harp was officially invented. This harp was capable of raising or lowering a given string by two semi-tones, which allowed 4 pitches.
  • Flat
  • Natural
  • Sharp
  • Music played in both flat and sharp keys
By this time, the classical period led to the development of romantic music. While Classical music had strict rules governing composition, the romantic era broke free of these rules and brought the increased use of musical color or chromaticism. This type of music suited the double-action pedal harp.

Throughout its development, the harp grew and more strings were added, changing the harp from being a small organic instrument of 5 or 6 strings to a giant machine that included rods, discs, pedals, and up to 47 strings.

The Irish Contribution

The harp is the most revered instrument in the Irish tradition. Foreigners who thought the early Irish to be barbaric, praised Irish music and Irish musicians as having a considerable amount of skill. 

Records of the harp dating back to the 6th century indicate laws which dictated a high status on the Irish harper. 

In 721 A.D., the chieftain, Fergus Mac Maile-Duin, judged his sons’ moral character by the different types of harp playing that could be heard in their houses. 

The Elizabethan rule in the 16th century saw the suppression of the old Gaelic order and the beginning of the decline of the native Irish harp tradition. By the end of the 17th century, the old Irish harping tradition had died out entirely and by the 18th century, harpers played contemporary or popular music, rather than the old repertoire.

In the 19th century, Ireland saw an effort to revive old harping traditions, so attempts were made to create different societies consisting of the poor blind boys who were taught the harp by Arthur O’Neill and Patrick Quin in Belfast and Dublin. 

From this, came Valentine Rennie, master of the Belfast harp school, and Patrick Byrne, who played before royalty and who appears in early photographs. 

Most notably, however, came John Egan, who was a pedal harp builder from Dublin. John Egan, hoping to capitalize on the wave of Irish cultural sentiment, created a new and improved portable Irish harp. This harp featured various things.
  • Pedal harp maker
  • Dublin with strings
  • Tuning
  • Fingering
This improvement was exactly the same as the pedal harp, created by an advert, Pigot & Co’s 1824 City of Dublin. 

After Egan, others came and attempted to produce imitations of Egan’s design, and thus was born the modern neo-Irish or folk harp. In the space of 100 years, the old Irish harp tradition had become extinct, and a new tradition began to take its place.
Healing Harp

Modern Harp Advancements

Thanks to John Egan’s introduction of the small and modern neo-Irish harp, smaller and more common harps were created, which utilized levers that raised the pitch of a single string by a semitone. These harps have become what is known today as lever harps that use only levers as opposed to pedals to change the pitch of a string. They may also be referred to as neo-Irish harps or folk harps.

Today, most people are enchanted by the sounds of modern pedal harps, double action harps or lever harps. Although these harps are nothing like the harps of old centuries, for many, these harps evoke deep responses, as if they still resonate with the voices of their ancestors.
Harp History
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