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Types of Hand-Held Harps

The Egyptian Bow Harp (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A variation of the lever harp and the pedal harp, the hand-held harp is a harp small enough to be played without the use of a stand or resting the instrument on the floor. Also called a lap harp, there are several varieties of hand-held harp with varied methods of construction. The plucked psaltery, the bow harp and the Irish or Celtic harp may all be considered examples of a hand-held harp.

Bow Harps

One of the most ancient and primitive forms of hand-held harps is the bow harp. This instrument likely evolved from the hunter's bow; given the shape of the instrument, it is easy to see where this speculation arose. Consisting of a bow-like shape with a hollow sound chamber, the bow harp has fewer strings than a modern, conventional harp. Bow harps have been in use for many thousands of years and still continue to be used.

Plucked Psaltery

The plucked psaltery looks little like its upright cousins. Consisting of a hollow, trapezoidal body, the plucked psaltery is laid flat on the lap to play while the metal strings are plucked. The plucked psaltery is referenced in the Bible. Medieval variations of the instrument had gut strings and could be held upright against the body to play. This instrument can also be bowed rather than plucked, giving it a versatility of sound unique to this variety of hand-held harp.

Celtic and Irish Harps

Celtic Harp, Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Celtic harp is an instrument which closely resembles the modern harp. This instrument is wire-strung and may or may not have sharping levers and is small enough to be held in the lap while playing, making it an example of a hand-held harp. The shape of the harp is the familiar, triangular style in which the strings run perpendicular to the sound board. A vital symbol of Irish nationalism, the Irish harp is a familiar image within Irish culture, appearing in such places as on Guinness lager, an Irish coin and the coat of arms for Ireland.

Double Harps

Double Strung Harp

The double harp is unusual in that it packs a large tonal range into a small area. Similar in shape and size to the Celtic harp, the double harp has strings that run from both sides of the neck to the sound board. The result is a greater range of sound, in that the harpist's hands are able to occupy the same tonal range on either side of the harp so notes may be doubled or played in rapid succession. The double harp comes in many sizes, including those small enough to be held in the lap while being played, making this a versatile variety of hand-held harp.

Triple Harp

Without sharping levers, the triple strung harp gives a great chromatic range through having 2 sets of diatonic tuned strings and 1 set of chromatic tuned strings. This allows for an excellent tonal range in a harp small enough to be hand held while played. The chromatic row sits between the 2 diatonic rows, which function in the same manner as those on a double harp. This configuration allows the harp to be played without the use of sharping levers, which some musicians feel negatively impact the quality of the note being played.

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