History Of The Harp

The harp is one of my favorite instruments to listen to and play, but a damaged finger stopped me from continuing to play. If you love the sound of the harp, you will love the history of where this beautiful instrument came from.

Maybe when your done, you could go online and listen to the different harps and fall in love too.

What is a Harp?

The simple definition of a harp is a set of strings stretched over a frame in which the player plucks or strums the strings to produce notes. There are small portable types and large ornate, orchestra type models with pedals.

There are many types of harps but the details of these will be covered in a future post. For now, we are just going to look at where the harp came from to where it has evolved today.

Let The History Begin

The harp occupies a position unique in the history of music. The harp is the oldest known instrument, existing in one form or another, in every land and throughout every age.

(Lyon & Healy Counter Sales Book, 1925)

The earliest evidence of the harp is found in Ancient Egypt circa 2500 BC. They were shaped like bows or angular and had very few strings.

The Invention Of The Harp

The invention of the harp came from Greek mythology. It was said that When Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, was born, the first thing he did was invent the lyre, (The first harp). The lyre is defined as a “Yoke Lute” being a lute in which strings are attached to a yoke that lies in the same plane as the sound-table and consists of two arms and a cross-bar.

When Hermes spotted a tortoise and decided to make a musical instrument from its shell.

Hermes Lyre

Indeed, the lyre played beautiful music. Next, Hermes went to Apollo’s pastures where Apollo’s cattle were sleeping. Hermes stole fifty heifers and hid them away.

When Apollo discovered fifty of his cattle missing, he was outraged. Apollo was furious so he brought Hermes in front of Zeus and demanded to have his cattle back. Hermes told Apollo he didn’t known where the cattle were. However, Zeus and the other gods did not believe him, so Hermes finally had to return the cattle to Apollo.

Apollo noticed that Hermes was carrying a beautiful musical instrument, and when he heard Hermes play it, he was enchanted. He offered to trade him the lyre for his fifty cattle. Apollo became known for the beautiful music he played with the lyre and became god of music.

The Irish Harp

The frame harp, what they called a harp that included a straight column, first appeared in Medieval Western Europe in the 8th to 10th century AD. These harps utilized about ten or eleven strings. The first harp to feature a hollow soundbox that helped amplify the instruments sound, date back to Ireland in the 14th century. It also included a straight column, a stronger neck and 30 to 36 strings.

For several hundred years, since Henry VIII, the Irish have used a harp as their emblem. During medieval times, Ireland was famous throughout Europe. Harpest would travel around Ireland writing music for patrons and special events.

Modern coins depict the fourteenth century Trinity College harp. In ancient times, the wire strung harp was an instrument of the aristocratic class as well as the most loved instrument of the Irish people.

Celtic harp



Today, some class the Celtic harp as a folk instrument because the original methods of building and playing it were lost during extended political turmoil in Ireland and there has been little general interest in it for years.

In addition to serving Ireland’s national symbol, Harps in culture are often associated with angels and other divine beings. Valentine’s day images often show cupid holding a harp.

Modern Harps

There are two types of modern harps, one is called a lever harp because it has levers at the top of the bridge to sharpen the strings and the concert harp that has pedals to alter the pitch on any string.

Classic lever harps by Lyon & Healy and Salvi are built with the string tension and string spacing that is standard for a pedal harp, so their harps make a good choice for someone who is likely to move on to pedal harp some day. Due to the cost difference between a pedal harp and a lever harp, most beginners start with a lever harp.

A pedal harp typically has a range of six and a half octaves (46 or 47 strings), weighs about (80 lb), is about (6 ft) high. The notes range from three octaves below middle C to three and a half octaves above, usually ending on G. The tension of the strings on the soundboard is roughly equal to a ton. The lowest strings are made of copper or steel-wound nylon, middle-lower of gut, and the middle to highest of nylon, or more or all gut.

The concert harp is a technologically advanced instrument, particularly distinguished by its use of “pedals”, foot-controlled devices which can alter the pitch of given strings, making it fully chromatic and thus able to play a wide body of classical repertoire. The pedal harp contains seven pedals that each affect the tuning of all strings of one pitch-class. Pedals were first introduced in 1697 by Jakob Hochbrucker of Bavaria.

Pedal Harp of today

Today the harp has become one of the largest range of all the instruments in an orchestra. They are decorated, come in many colors and are even acoustic-electric. This means the harp can be played through an amplifier for more volume, or without and still hear it’s beautiful sound.

The electric harp that is strictly electric has to be plugged into an amplifier to hear the sound. A true electric solid-body harp cannot be played acoustically since it has no hollow soundbox, and must be amplified when played.


From way back in ancient Egypt to Greek mythology and to the Irish Celtic harp, their is no mistake that through the years the changes to these wonderful instruments has brought us to the modern harps we see and hear today. If you ever want to hear some of these beautiful instruments just go to U-Tube and type in harp music. You will open up a whole new world of music that many have never seen or heard before.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Happy Harping!

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