For this month’s article I would like to introduce you to my instrument - The Harp. The harp has a unique place among instruments because the way music is produced from it. It is also an instrument that many people know little or nothing about. Everywhere I go, I am approached by people who tell me they have never seen one in real life before or seen anyone play one live. Some even ask me what it is!
I have always been interested in the harp because of its unique sound. I also am very partial to Celtic music and the harp seems to always be involved with that genre. Harps are also usually quite expensive so it wasn’t until my 45th birthday when I bought a kit for a small 26 string harp and built it that I finally got the opportunity to start learning to play and understand the beautiful qualities of the harp.
The harp is one of the oldest instruments historically and can be found as far back as the book of Genesis in the Bible. It is also the second most mentioned musical instrument in the Bible just behind the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet). There are two forms of harp in the Bible; one is the smaller Kinnor (this is the Hebrew word used) or Davidic Harp; also called a lyre, usually carrying 7-15 strings. This is probably the type David would have had along with him in the sheep pens and pastures since it is small and easy to carry. It is the U-shaped harp that is seen on many paintings and frescos throughout history.
The second form of harp is the Nevel that is larger and more like the harps we see today. The Hebrew word Nevel can also mean gourd and so you can see the relationship of the word to the harp because it has the hollow sound box as the gourd has the hollow center. This type of harp has been adopted by nearly every culture around the world with some modifications made unique to each culture. The final “Queen” of harps being the concert pedal harp we see today with 49 strings.
The oldest know harp that is still playable is found in Dublin, Ireland at the Trinity College and is known as the Trinity College Harp. It has been dated back to the 15th Century and has 29 strings that are metal. A likeness of it has been included in various forms from the famous Guinness Beer logo, the Irish flag and even the Euro coins.
The harp that I use for recording is a 33-string lever harp (sometimes called a Celtic harp or folk harp) that I built myself and is light enough to transport fairly easily and has excellent sound production and resonance. I also have a 26-string Harpsicle that I use for international travel since it is designed to fit into the overhead bins in the airplane and has excellent sound.
The harp is a very unique instrument compared to other instruments. First of all, it is a string instrument. The sound of each note is made as the string is caused to vibrate by plucking it with a finger. The tone and volume of the note can be affected by how the finger touches the string and how much energy is transferred to the string from the finger. It can be soft or loud and each note has a separate string that is tuned separately from the other string; one string to each note of the scale on the harp.
This is in contrast to other string instruments, like the violin or guitar where the notes are changed by pressing on the string to give it a different length and thus a different note either using finger positions like the violin, or fret board positions like the guitar. These instruments play a multiple number of notes on one string by changing the finger position on the string. This allows more notes with fewer strings, but it also changes the sound of the note produced by the string.
With the harp, all strings are open all the time. When one note is played, it continues to vibrate for some time after it is plucked. This vibration is producing the note even as other notes are played on other strings, even though it is getting softer over time. These soft lingering notes produce a wonderful symphony of subharmonics that carry on under the main body of music giving the harp its unique sound.
There is another thing happening with the sound of the harp as well. When a C note is plucked on one octave, all the other C notes in the other octaves start to vibrate as well, although much softer in sound. This happens with each note that is plucked and adds to the subharmonics that are being carried out upon virtually all the strings through the music.
All of this sound whether loud and upfront or soft and in the background is what makes the harp music sound so different from other instruments. I believe that it is also what makes the harp such a natural for therapy sessions and exploring the frequencies. I want to be quick to add that in no way am I diminishing the importance of other instruments. Each has its own contribution to music and many of them are very beautifully employed in music therapy programs.
When I recorded one of my CD’s the recording engineer that was mastering the disc wanted to take out some of these subharmonics to “clean up” the track. I kept fighting him over this issue explaining that if he took those sounds out, he would be reducing the effects of the music and stripping the harp of its unique music. I eventually won the argument and when it was all over, he admitted that it really did belong there.
I have many people asking me how to learn to play the harp so I have set up free lessons on YouTube: