It’s not a question you expect to hear often as a harp player. But for people who have only ever seen a classical pedal harp in the corner of a room in some movie scene, with its gilded paint and massive front pillar, the demure sight of a smaller harp, with a natural wood finish and curved front pillar, can be confusing. (I was once even asked if my harp was a cello.)
Even those who recognize that it must be a variation on the same general beast are unsure of what to call it. Folk harp, Celtic harp, Lap harp? Aren’t those all interchangeable? Well, not quite. As it turns out, the harp is more a class of instruments, whose history dates back to the early middle ages (and whose ancestor instruments go back much farther), variations on which can be found all around the globe. One of the central aspects tying them all together is strings that run away from (perpendicular to) the soundboard, rather than parallel to it (as is the case with zithers, lyres, auto-harps, and so on).
We’ll get more into the history and cultural variations later. For now, let’s focus on the Folk, or “Celtic” harp. Both terms are used rather loosely to refer to any of a variety of smaller harps that may or may not have levers (rather than pedals) to sharp or flat some or all of the strings (hence the technical term ‘lever harp’). ‘Folk harp’ is perhaps the most flexible term of all, and can encompass a wide range of styles, including Paraguayan harps, Gaelic wire-strung harps (clarsachs), and any number of other regional variations. As you might guess by the name of this site, my harp of choice is commonly referred to as a Celtic harp, due to its origins in that region of the world where the Celtic cultures once dominated – namely, the British Isles, and parts of France and Brittany. Although there is evidence of much older harps, dating back to ancient Egypt, the familiar triangle-shaped frame harp seems to have originated in the West sometime around the 8th Century. There are all sorts of good books exploring the history of the harp (links at end of article) that you can check out if you want to know more.
The modern Celtic (or neo-Celtic) harp can be strung with nylon, wire, gut (or faux gut), and even carbon fiber strings, and can range from a diminutive 19-string lap harp up to a 38-string floor model. The more strings, the larger the range. The smallest harps tend to have a soprano voicing, mostly including notes from middle C on up, while the larger harps are what you want if you’re looking for more bass strings. We’ll get into harp tunings later, but generally the strings are tuned diatonically (like the white keys of the piano), with levers (or blades, in the case of wire harps) that allow you to add sharps and/or flats (like the piano’s black keys). These days they’re just as likely to be made in Ontario, Canada or Texas, USA as in England, Ireland or Wales, and the telltale harmonic curve that gives modern harps their lovely shape can vary significantly from one harp maker to the next. They’re also used to play all types of music, from classical to jazz to covers of rock and pop tunes, and everything in between.
So the next time you see something that looks like a harp, don’t be afraid to ask about it. Harp players on the whole are generally quite friendly, and (usually) don’t bite, and we’re always happy to talk at great length about our favourite instrument.
A short recommended reading list (to be expanded later). You should be able to find these at your local library:
Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Teud: A History of the Harp in Scotland, by Alison Kinnaird & Keith Sanger
Harps and Harpists, Revised Edition, by Roslyn Rensch
The Story of the Irish Harp: Its History and Influence by Nora Joan Clark
Harp History, Alison Vardy
The International Harp Museum
History of the Harp at Harp.com