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What is a Harp, and Where Did It Come From?

Jul 19, 2008
The harp is one of the most ancient instruments that continues to prevail in today's modern world. Its use dates back several centuries. Archaeologists and historians have confirmed the use of harps by the ancient Egyptians and Persians.

The actual "invention" of the harp cannot, however, be pinned down to any one person or even any one civilization. It is actually believed that several civilizations around the world had invented some type of harp independent of each other.

Many historians and archaeologists tend to believe that the idea for a harp came from a hunter's bow, which makes a sound when plucked. Indeed, many early harps are little more than a hunter's bow -- known as a "bow harp" -- with a resonating vessel attached and typically more than one string attached.

Today's concert harps are quite large, standing about six feet high, and utilizes a seven-pedal system to change the pitch of the strings.

What Makes a Harp a Harp?

Many people often think about the boy David in the Bible who played a harp to please his king. However, the instrument that David played was actually a kinnor, which is an ancient Hebrew lyre.

Ask the average person on the street to describe a harp, and they are likely to imagine a very large and heavy instrument whose strings are plucked by the fingers to create music. But the truth is that the size of the instrument has very little to do with whether it is a harp or not. Harps come in many size from small enough to be held on the lap to large enough that it must be set on the floor while the artist playing it must sit next to it.

So what, exactly, makes a harp a harp? The most defining feature may be its long strings, most often flowing vertically from top to bottom. The soundboard, which is the part of a stringed instrument that transfers the vibrations of the strings to the air, is situated perpendicular to the strings of a harp -- which is why a lyre cannot be considered a harp.

Other features that a stringed instrument must have in order to be considered a harp are the neck and resonator. There are harps with and without a forepillar -- the former type being known as a framed harp, while the latter is referred to as an open harp.

Although harmonicas are often referred to as a "Blues harp" and there are also instruments such as the mouth harp and wind harp that use the name, because they are not stringed instruments, using reeds in place of strings, they cannot be considered harps.
About the Author
The Sylvia Woods Harp Center (http://www.harpcenter.com) is a harp store located in Glendale California and staffed by professional musicians that are ready and willing to answer your harp questions. The author, Art Gib, is a freelance writer.
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