The Historical Harp
A musical instrument which is referenced in ancient times, the harp is believed to have existed as far back as 3500 B.C. Harps consist of three parts – a neck, resonator, and strings; also, “frame harps” are differentiated from “open harps” because the former don’t have a supporting pillar at their long ends to support the strings.
Harps didn’t always have the multitude of strings that we see in many today. Found in tombs in Sumer from 3500 B.C., a transformation of shape has resulted in angular rather than arched harps, with Persia, India (500 B.C.) and China (around same time). Indian harps, found in the southern Tamil region, typically had approximately 15 strings, presumably inspired by an archery bow per one documenting work.
More modern-day history shows harp evolution in design and variable pitch, accomplished by adding a foot pedal in Europe in the 1700s allowing each string to increase pitch by a half-step and then another half step with the addition of yet another pedal. Examples of harp use in Latin America, Africa, and Southern/Southeastern Asia were also notable.
The pedal or “concert harp” was used rarely in early classical music, e.g. by Beethoven or Mozart. Innovative design in harps beyond the pedals (or rather instead of them) was noted in the Welsh triple harp, for example, with additional strings replacing functions of the pedals to achieve needed sounds. Newer versions of harps have included the amplified (electro-acoustic) hollow and solid body electric lever harps of the 20th century.
Today’s Musical Harp
Purists reject the idea that a harp is a “nude piano.” Harps are largely triangular in shape, Most harps do, however, have the piano’s similar white keys of C-D-E-F-G-A-B (with the C in red and F in blue on the harp). Concert grand pedal harps are comprised of 47 strings (6.5 octaves), with the bottom string C and top string G. With seven pedals below, pushing these pedals activates a disc that plays different notes. Important to note is that pushing a pedal simultaneously changes all strings a half-step in pitch; lever harps, however, allow individual changes in pitch in a string without affecting other strings.
Expert harpists note the following key points in writing musical compositions for a harp: notes take longer to pluck, some lower notes are not reachable in normal seated position by the right hand, and the harpist uses color coded strings to localize (hence does not rely upon feel, like the piano). Also, a strings continue to resonate and produce a sound, stopping the sound requires deliberate finger application; also, this complicates the issue of repeating a note, requiring instead plucking of two different strings that are harmonically equivalent.
Innovations with the Harp
The harp, perhaps more than any other instrument, illustrates the wide range with simplicity – of strings being plucked by fingers. An innovative such illustration, enlarged to beyond normal life-size and combining sculpture and architecture with music, is what William Close has invented in the “earth harp.” He plays outstretched strings attached to buildings, in shows in different parts of the world (recently in Singapore, as covered by the BBC (www.bbc.com) and appearing on YouTube (www.youtube.com).
Another innovative idea is the use of EEG brainwaves to play harp – so, in effect, playing an instrument without touch – this invention, called the “NeuroHarp,” can also be seen in a YouTube video. Jamie Gilbert, using an X-Y plotter for a project at the University of Brighton, describes the expected randomness of brainwaves with a drum accompaniment. Again, the versatility of the harp’s strings lends itself to such play.
The unique journey from a hunter’s bowstring probably thousands of years ago, to today’s harp is quite remarkable. Watching a harpist play, with the concert harp and all its intricacies to produce the harp’s unique sound, illustrates not only the evolution of the harp, but additionally the complexity of sound it is able to create. With digital influence, this evolution will likely continue.