We use cookies to track usage and preferences. See Cookie Policy
Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines
   You are currently viewing the United Kingdom version of the site.
Would you like to switch to your local site?
Digital Subscriptions >  Latest Articles > Getting Started; Early harps

Getting Started; Early harps
Early Music Today

Getting Started; Early harps

Posted 22 November 2016   |   669 views   |   Music   |   Comments (0) Frances Kelly takes us through a brief history of the early harp in western culture, and the basic fundamentals of playing.

Why do we choose any instrument? Why does one particular instrument speak to us? I was very lucky to take up the harp completely by accident as a Junior at the Royal College of Music in the golden age of ILEA scholarships and free musical education. It spoke to me immediately, not just because I was mad about Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky and the wonderful colours in their orchestral music but also because I loved the feel of playing it, the sounds it conjures up and the way the they linger in space. With plucked gut strings you are really playing with the acoustic around you.


Growing up I was subject to the opinion that instruments changed and developed, got bigger and better, cleverer and could do more or less anything composers stretched their imagination to write. Of course the harp is still developing and we now have electric and midi harps, but I have been drawn towards exploring ‘early music’ and how each harp is right for the music of its time. I also love the element of improvisation involved and the communal exploration of the score.


People often come up to me and say, ‘I always wanted to play the harp’. There seems to be something about the harp sound that touches the heart; it can be soothing and therapeutic, but also dynamic and invigorating. The harp is so ancient, so culturally diverse, yet fundamentally so simple. There are many different types of harp, and to be entirely ‘authentic’ one could have a few different harps for each century.


A brief, rough summary of early harps in western culture (though it has to be said that the development is by no means as linear as this suggests):


• Medieval harp: A small single row, diatonic harp with a hollowed-out sound box (around 17–23 strings is useful) which rests on your lap or between your knees. It can have quite a robust sound.


• Gothic harp: A longer, more slender instrument, suitable for music from the 14th to the 16th centuries, it has a sweet and gentle sound which can be transformed by bray pins which buzz against the strings. Some accidentals are possible by fretting the string with the thumb, or by clever tunings in different octaves.


• Wire-strung harp: Strongly associated with Ireland and Scotland, and played with the nails, this harp has the most gorgeous, melting, lingering sound, but needs a careful and complex damping technique. The last gathering of the great Irish harpers was in 1792.


• Chromatic harps: From c.1580 with more than one row of strings and a greater range of notes, these harps are wonderful for accompanying from a figured bass and were usually played by professionals. In Italy the rows of strings were parallel but the Spanish harp had two rows crossing each other and its sound box is much broader. The harp for which Handel wrote was like the traditional Welsh triple harp of today, albeit much more lightly strung.


• Hakenharfe: A harp with hooks that can be turned manually on the string arm to fret a string and raise it by a semitone. This developed into …


• The single-action pedal harp: A beautiful and decorative instrument which flourished from about 1760–1850. Pedals were attached to rods that went inside the pillar and activated mechanism to fret the strings by one semitone. Usually tuned in E-flat major with a limited range of keys available; suitable for Classical and early Romantic repertoire.


• The double-action pedal harp: Perfected by Erard in 1811, the harp’s mechanism has not really changed since this time. It enabled the harp to play in all keys as each string can be fretted twice and thus can be flat, natural or sharp. 19th century harps should be much more lightly strung than today both in orde

For more great articles like this get the Dec 2016 - Feb 2017 issue of Early Music Today below or subscribe and save.

Single Issue - CLOSURE NOTICE Replica Edition included

View Issues

About Early Music Today

Early Music Today is the UK’s leading magazine devoted to performers and enthusiasts of early music.

Most read articles this month

Failsafe  fingering

Failsafe fingering

In answer to a reader’s question, Graham Fitch addresses the complex subject of how to find fingering that works for you More...
Christmas Gifts for Her

Christmas Gifts for Her

Stuck for gift ideas for the lovely lady in your life? The Pocketmags team have pooled all their best ideas for gifts for her this Christmas. Get ready to earn some serious brownie points! More...
Christmas Gifts for Him

Christmas Gifts for Him

Why are men so hard to buy for?! If you're looking for gift ideas for the deserving gent in your life, look no further; the Pocketmags team have found some amazing gifts for him this Christmas. Boring socks begone! More...
Lift your  chances

Lift your chances

Be ready for your sixty-second chance to shine with Adrian Magson’s pitch correction More...


Nashville songwriter Mark Cawley shares some tactics for reviving those elusive creative juices when you’ve lost the flow More...
Baking Heaven's Banoffee Loaf

Baking Heaven's Banoffee Loaf

Brought to you by Baking Heaven, this Banoffee Loaf is just the sweet treat you're looking for. It's sure-fire family hit, here’s how to make the most of this delicious Banoffee Loaf... More...
3 Free Reads for the New Year

3 Free Reads for the New Year

Spend all your money in December? Us too. We’ve pulled together our 3 favourite free reads available for you on Pocketmags. Everyone loves a free read! More...
Great British Food's Pomegranate & Chocolate Cake

Great British Food's Pomegranate & Chocolate Cake

If you visit Morocco in autumn you will notice fresh pomegranates wherever you go. The beautiful seeds are eaten after a meal, squeezed for a refreshing drink, or scattered, jewel like, over sweet and savoury dishes. This fantastic cake uses tangy pomegranate molasses in the base and the vibrant ruby red seeds are scattered over the top to add a pop of colour and refreshing bite. More...
Did your ancestor leave a will?

Did your ancestor leave a will?

For non-family historians, the appeal of a long-lost relative’s will is that they might find themselves a beneficiary. But for us, wills can provide an invaluable collection of names, relationships and clues to family members from times gone by. June Terrington examines this rich collection of records More...
Glasgow Museums’ collection  of Anchor Line posters

Glasgow Museums’ collection of Anchor Line posters

Emily Malcolm, Curator of Transport & Technology, explores a colourful collection of historic travel posters, which convey the excitement of world travel in years gone by More...
Vouchers Gift Cards A magazine subscription is the perfect gift but you'll need something to show on the big day. View All
Ways to Pay Pocketmags Payment Types
At Pocketmags you get Secure Billing Great Offers HTML Reader Gifting options Loyalty Points