The harp is one of the world's oldest musical instruments, with evidence of its use dating as far back as 3000 B.C. Modern harps have the largest range of all the instruments in an orchestra. The Great Seal of Ireland includes a harp, which is a symbol of the country. Harps are shaped much like bows, and it is thought that the first harp was based on the weapon.
Evidence of harps dates back 5,000 years. Middle Eastern paintings from 2500 B.C. prominently feature the harp, and King David is said to have been a harpist. The earliest full harp that has been discovered dates back to 2600 B.C.; it was discovered in the Sumerian city of Ur. As early as the sixth century B.C., use of the harp had traveled into Europe, especially Greece and Italy. Medieval European manuscripts and carvings date its arrival to central and northern Europe to the eighth century.
By the 10th century, Ireland was enamored with the harp, and it was quickly adopted as the national symbol. Over the centuries, the Irish harp has evolved along with the concert harp. The Irish harp has finger-operated levers instead of foot-operated pedals. Players use their fingernails to strum the Irish harp, while concert harp players use the pads of their fingers. In early times, if a listener didn't like the music an Irish harpist was playing, he would break the musician's fingernails.
The modern concert harp includes 47 strings, seven pedals, a frame, a soundboard and a base. Harps can be as large as 6 feet and weigh 90 pounds. Tuned correctly, the pressure placed on the harp's soundboard by the strings is more than 4,000 pounds. Most modern concert harps are made of maple wood and are manufactured in Chicago.
Playing a Harp
A harpist plays using only the first four fingers on each hand. The little finger is too weak to pluck the strings with enough power. Certain harp strings are colored and serve as a reference point for the performer. For instance, "C" strings are red, while "F" strings are black. A performer uses the harp's pedals to change the pitch of the strings. Most harp pedals are double-action, which means depressing them halfway will change the note from a flat to a sharp.
Harps in Culture
Harps often are associated with angels and other divine beings. Valentine's Day images often show Cupid holding a harp. In addition to serving as Ireland's national symbol, the harp has become synonymous with such Irish products as Harp Lager. This brand uses the Irish harp as its marketing symbol. Harps work well with an orchestra or as a solo instrument, while such pop musicians as The Beatles, Cher and Björk have used the instrument in their songs.