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Fly back to the Home Page  All Things Harp! ~ I get a lot of people asking questions about my harp and harps in general, so here's the guide to everything I know!

"Harpers were second only to the chieftain or king, often serving as advisors and leading armies into battle.  Unarmed, they were recognised and respected by the enemy and were generally immune from harm....."

How the Celtic Harp works  ~ Sarah's Stoney End 'Lorraine'  ~

          ~  Early History of The Harp  ~  The Harp's Origins  ~  Lyre Harps in the Middle East  ~  Lyre Harps in WesternEurope  ~        

      ~  The Triangular Harp  ~  Medieval and Renaissance Harps  ~  Earliest Surviving Harps  ~   The English ban of the Harp ~

 ~  The Harp Today  ~ 

 ~ How the Celtic Harp works ~ Oh the joys of a modal instrument! 

~ Small, Medium or Large Sir? ~ 

Harps come in all sizes, from a Lap Harp with 16 or so strings to the big Classical Harp with as many as 59 strings.  The Celtic Harp sits in the middle with anything from 19 to 34 strings.  One thing they all have in common is that the 'C' strings are coloured red and the 'F' strings are coloured blue or sometimes black.  This gives you an idea where you are in a sea of strings!  You can get double and triple rows of strings on harps known as chromatic harps, to be honest you don't see this type of harp very often and the most usual is the single row of strings with  7 notes in the octave.  (A chromatic scale is that which contains all the sharps and flats, like all the black notes on the piano, a 7 note octave is just all the white notes on the piano).   The other major difference between the Classical Harp and the Celtic Harp is the way we can change keys.  The Classical Harp has a set of peddles at the foot of the harp which enable the player to change key on the fly.  The peddle is pressed for the desired key and this connects to rods that are housed in the column, the rods then connect to a series of discs that action the tightening of the set of strings that need changing, bringing into instant effect the change of key.  The classical harpist may have the range and versatility of being able to change keys quickly but you can't get a classical harp in the back of my dear little 'Minty' (VW Polo)....  So, how do you change key on the Celtic Harp?  Read on.

~ Levers? What are they?

My own harp has 29 strings and is fully fitted with 29 levers.  The lever is positioned just below where the string attaches at the top, or the 'neck' of the harp.  When you pull the lever to the 'up' position it presses into the string and nips it against a metal bar, essentially shortening the length of the string.  By doing this it takes it up in tone, this is called sharpening.  The levers are all positioned very carefully so that they create a perfect half tone up, sharpening it, when the lever is in place.   So when we need to have an F# we flick all the F string levers into the 'up' position and so all the F's on the harp will now sound like F#.   

~ What key is the harp tuned to? ~ 

Because we can only ever sharpen a string we need to think carefully about what the default tuning of the harp should be.  Most harps have a default tuning of Eb (ie. the E, A & B strings are essentially tuned half a tone down to Eb, Ab & Bb) . The reason for this is that from the default key of Eb, the maximum number of keys can be reached by using combinations of different levers.  Every key that we want to play in is accessible to us by starting at the key of Eb.  (Strangely enough, it has become my favourite key for noodling!).  When it comes to playing a contemporary song, I look at the chords contained within it and thereby work out which levers I need to alter.  In fact there is nothing to stop you having the lower half of the harp in one key and the upper half in another. This can be very useful, if for example you have a note in a chord that conflicts with another chord, for example a 'D' major chord contains the notes of D, F# and A.  If you need to play a D minor chord (D, F (natural) and A) you would either have to just play the D & A notes of the chord and miss out the offending F# or set one area of the harp with the F as a natural and only play the Dm in that one place.  Levers can be adjusted mid song if required!  All this sounds a bit of a nuisance but the real beauty of playing the harp is that once you have 'set' your key you have no chance of hitting a wrong note as in many instruments!  This is what is known as a modal instrument.  

~ Strings ~ 

Each string has a very specific diameter and length and each harp will have its own string chart describing width and length and type of string to use when replacing.  If you were to fit a wrong string it just wouldn't sound right.  Strings need replacing every now and again and sometimes they break and sometimes they just start sounding wrong, this is the time to change a string.  Weirdly the time not to change a harp string is just before a performance!  Harp strings take a long time to settle in and they need tuning again and again until they have settled in and stretched to their happy position.  When I have broken a string I have just removed it and carried on playing, it is better to have the note missing than try to replace the string and risk it sounding completely flat every five minutes!

~ Keeping the harp in tune ~  

The harp stays in tune reasonably well, as a rule I try to tune it every day, takes about 10 minutes.  This way it is tensioned correctly all along the soundboard and will sound more pleasant to those around me!  If the harp does go out of tune it will generally be 'all together', ie. the warmth or coolness of the room will make it either slightly sharp or flat, but within itself and its relationship between the different notes it will be in tune.  The levers are never left in the up position as this puts undue tension on the strings.  The pegs that the strings are wound around are square on one side and you have a tuning key which specifically fits this shape, if you lose your tuning key you have to borrow a tiny 5ml spanner from a mouse.

~ Mic'ing up for those heavy rock classics ~  

I have a little transducer microphone stuck on the inside of the harp, it's stuck down with tape and is positioned about halfway along the soundboard.  It's made by a company called Fishman and it is designed especially for large soundboards of pianos and harps.  It looks like a 2p piece and has a wire and a DI lead socket attached to the end.  With this in place it is easy for me to go electric.  Over the years I have chatted to various harp players about the best ways of mic'ing a harp up and there seems to be no definitive method.  For example Robin Williamson has three mikes stuck to the outside of his harp to catch the high, mid and low frequencies.

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~ Sarahs' Stoney End 'Lorraine' ~ The largest egg slicer in the world! ~

The Stoney End range of harps made in Red Wing, Minnesota are renowned for their very unique sound, being constructed of Maple and Cherry wood with Finnish Birch for the soundboard.  The resonance and 'magical' quality is enhanced by nylon strings. This model, the 'Lorraine' has 29 strings and at 48" is medium sized in the harp family, the range covers 4 octaves - 1 and a half below middle C and 2 and a half above middle C.  Top and bottom strings being both 'G'.  I chose the Stoney End 29 string 'Lorraine' purely for the sound.  Having 29 strings as opposed to 34 does mean that I lose out on some low notes.  But it was the unique magical quality of the Stoney End that drew me to it.  Choosing a harp is a very personal thing.  What might sound nice to one person sounds dull to another.  Elements such as wood and strings are crucial to the sound and resonance and 'character' of an instrument.   

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~ Early History of The Harp ~ The instrument of the Gods! ~

The harp is often thought of as the 'instrument of the gods' and dates back to ancient times.  The word "harpa" or "harp" comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words meaning "to pluck".

A later word used in Scotland and Ireland for the "Celtic" harp was clarsach or cláirseach.  Scottish records of the 15th and 16th centuries show that both the terms "harp" and "clarsach" were in use at the same time, and seem to indicate that there was a distinction between the gut-strung European-style harps and wire-strung Gaelic clarsachs.

Today, we know the Gaelic harps as the Irish, Celtic, Folk, Scottish Clarsach or the modern lever harp.  Most folk harps are strung with a combination of nylon, metal, gut and/or synthetic gut (carbon fibre) strings.

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 ~ The Harp's Origins ~ The Hunter's Bow ~

One of the earliest musical instrument discoveries showed a harp-like instrument on rock paintings dating back to 15,000 BC in France.  Many believe that the earliest harps came from the sound of the hunter's bow.

In Egypt some of the earliest images of bow harps are from the Pharoah's tombs dating some 5,000 years ago.  These hieroglyphs show that there were many harps in ancient Egypt.  The harp was also popular in ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia.

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~ Lyre Harps in the Middle East ~ Gone with the Wind! ~

Vertical harps with 2 arms known as lyre harps or "lyres" also began appearing in ancient Sumaria by 2800 BC.  The development of the lyre harp in Greece also coincided with the mathematical musical scales.  By the 6th century BC, Pythagorus discovered numerical ratios corresponding to intervals of the musical scale.  The Greeks were also credited with inventing the Aeolian Harp, a harp played by the wind.

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~ Lyre Harps in Western Europe ~ Definately not an instrument of the Devil! ~

It seems that Ancient Rome did not seem to place as high an importance on music compared to other ancient civilizations.  The harp and musical culture in general seems to have disappeared in the Dark Ages but a re-appearance is made during the 4th Century AD.  Monk vocalizations predating Gregorian chant were used in services of worship in the Christian Church.  The harp became the preferred instrument for accompaniment of the monks' voices.  And interestingly, was one of the few instruments allowed in the early church where the horn, drum and rattle were considered the devil's instruments!

The Irish are generally credited in the popular press with bringing the harp to Europe, however some scholars believe that the harp was actually brought into Europe from Egypt by the Phoenicians in pre Christian times as a trade good.  

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~ The Triangular Harp ~ A major development! ~

The earliest drawings of triangular-frame harps appear in the Utrecht Psalter in the early 9th Century.  It solved two problems.  It allowed the harp maker to increase string tension without distorting the instrument which also made it easier to stay in tune.  Harps with more strings, higher tensions could give better volume and tone.

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~ Medieval and Renaissance Harps ~ The importance of being a Harper! ~

The harps played by the harpers of the old Gaelic orders were an aristocratic instrument, played in the courts of Kings and before the chiefs of clans.  Harp music had an important role in Gaelic culture, legend and folklore.  About the 13th Century, when Feudalism reached its height, the Troubadours began appearing.  European harpers earned their living by moving from town to town, using small harps for self-accompanied singing, storytelling, news-telling and in instrumental groupings.  Harpers were second only to the chieftain or king, often serving as advisors and leading armies into battle.  Unarmed, they were recognised and respected by the enemy and were generally immune from harm.

The single row of strings Renaissance harp remained only capable of playing seven notes per octave.  The major composers of the 16th & 17th Centuries demanded all 12 chromatic notes of the scale.  One solution was a chromatic harp.  By 1581 a double harp with two rows of strings was built.  Soon afterwards, the triple harp appeared where the player would reach between the two diatonic scaled rows of outer strings to play the chromatic notes between.  The double and triple harps continue today in the Welsh tradition.  I've never played one but it would be fascinating to try! 

Have a listen to Yorkshire based Fiona Katie Roberts who plays the triple harp, she is amazing!

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~ Earliest Surviving Harps ~ 'If 29 strings were good enough for Brian Boru, then that's good enough for me!" ~

The earliest surviving harps from Scotland and Ireland date to about the 15th Century.  The Trinity College Harp, one of Irelands' national treasures, is the harp from which the national symbol of Ireland is copied.  Thought to have belonged to Brian Boru it has 29 strings, which is of particular interest to me as my Stoney End 'Lorraine' also has 29 strings, the more common number being slightly larger at 34 strings.  For centuries the harp was an integral part of Irish life.  

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~ The English ban of the Harp ~ Harps were burnt and harpers executed! ~

Traveling harpists in Ireland were known to be at the focal point of rebellions - so much so that the harp was banned!  The period starting from the 1600s during English rule in Ireland was difficult for Irish harpers, as the harp as a folk and court instrument was suppressed to prevent a resurgence of nationalism.  Harps were burnt and harpers executed.  The tragic extinction of this harping tradition at the end of the 18th Century had a number of causes: the Angloisation of the Irish and Scottish cultures, the increased popularity of step-dancing and the fiddle and the inability of the harp to play the musical accidentals required for classical music, which started coming in to vogue in Dublin and Edinburgh during the then Baroque era.  Only in Wales was the Folk harp tradition unbroken. 

By the late 18th Century it was clear that traditional Irish harpers were nearly extinct.  Because harp music had been handed down orally, very little of it has been preserved.  The most important attempt to save the music was made in 1792.  In order to encourage and preserve the old harping tradition, a festival was held in Belfast, the advert invited all Irish harpers to come and play for cash prizes.  Only 10 harpers, ranging from 15 to 97 years old could be found.  Luckily a young organ player called Edward Bunting notated many of the tunes and he continued to do this all his life.  

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~ The Harp Today ~ Sharing the love! ~

The resurgence in the late 20th Century of the North American traveling Troubadour harpers like Sylvia Woods has rekindled interest in the Celtic Harp.  The international success of The Chieftains and their harper, Derek Bell has brought the harp back into the mainstream.  Turlough O'Carolan (1670 - 1738), the blind Irish folk harpist, wrote hundreds of tunes - many of them are still really popular today.  Personally speaking musicians like Alan Stivel were highly instrumental in bringing the beauty of the harp to my attention.   Robin Williamson inspired me greatly as did Jon Anderson.   Now many artists of all genres are using the Celtic and Classical Harp within their music.

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