History of Harp Development

A bow-shaped harp


The harp is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world. The earliest harps were developed from the hunting bow. The wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs dating from as early as 3000 B.C. show an instrument that closely resembles the hunter's bow, without the pillar that we find in modern harps.


An angled harp

The angled harp came to Egypt from Asia in about 1500 B.C. It was built from a hollow sound-box joined to a straight string-arm at an angle. The strings, possibly made of hair or plant fibre, were attached to the sound-box at one end and tied to the string-arm at the other. The strings were tuned by rotating the knots that held them.




The lyre ( kinnor )



The lyre was the favored instrument of classical Greece and Rome. It goes back to the very beginning of human civilization and is mentioned in Genesis 4:21 "and the name of his brother was Yuval, he was the ancestor of all who play the kinnor (lyre) and ugav (flute)". It was the type of harp the biblical King David played as a shepherd sitting in the fields composing his first melodies. Lyres are played with one hand only and have a limited number of strings.


A triangular-framed harp

During the Middle Ages the pillar was added to support the tension of extra strings. Stiffer string materials like copper and brass were used and these changes enabled the instrument to produce greater volume and a longer-sustaining tone. Paintings of these harps appear in many early manuscripts and their shapes hardly differ from those of the Celtic harps that are still played today.



A 25-string Saul harp by Aoyama


As the early harps had no mechanical devices for providing the player with different keys, harpists would be quick to retune those strings they required for each piece. Modern non-pedal harps, however, are built with separate levers for each string. These sharping levers are designed to shorten the length of a string, enabling the tuning of that string to be raised by half a tone. Levers have to be moved with the left hand and a skilled player can achieve very quick changes of key.



A 34-string lever harp by Aoyama

The earliest known depiction of a frame harp in the British Isles is on an eighth century stone cross. Music was an important part of life in ancient Ireland and the harp was an aristocratic instrument, played in the courts of kings and before the chiefs of clans. Harpers were required to be able to evoke three different emotions in their audience by their music: Laughter, tears and sleep. With the Anglicisation of the Irish nobility, the traditional harpers became minstrels and street musicians reciting poetry and singing folk songs to the accompaniment of their harps.




A 47-string gilded pedal harp with rich decoration and elegant carving by Aoyama



There have been many famous men who played the harp, amongst whom are King Alfred the Great and King Henry the VII and it was only towards the end of the eighteenth century when sumptuous gilded instruments became an essential decoration in elegant salons, that the harp was exclusively played by women. Because of the enormous demands for harps, Sebastian Erard, who also made revolutionary changes in the pianoforte mechanism, managed to design a modulating system which has remained basically unchanged until the present day. His ingenious system of seven pedals left the hands completely free for playing. On the harp, one reads off two staves as on the piano; however as the harp is tuned diatonically, fingering is the same in every single key for both hands, an unusual advantage over any other musical instrument.

Magdalene Wong


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