One of the oldest surviving instruments, harps have become so revered that they’re a staple of religious imagery. In Christianity, cherubs and other stylized angels are often seen playing small harps, and harps are generally associated with heaven while bells are often linked to hell.
But harps go well beyond religious use, and there are two major categories most harps fit into: Lever and Pedal.
Lever harps have small levers at the top of the strings for tuning purposes. These levers must be adjusted by hand and allow the string to play its note as a flat, natural, or sharp.
These harps tend to be smaller and are rarely used for large performances due to their limitations. Levers can be set during a performance, but are usually adjusted prior to a song to avoid interruption.
Pedal harps, conversely, use a number of pedals to shift between sharps, flats, and naturals during a performance. They take longer to master, but the payoff is being able to play uninterrupted. Due to their larger size, pedal harps are less common for small performances but are still considered the go-to for professional harpists.
Of course, there are a lot more than two kinds of harp, so let’s take a look at some of the many varieties out there.
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Types of Harps
1. Bell Harp
These unusual harps have a shape similar to a zither but sound like bells. The instrument is played using the thumbs while gently swinging it with both hands. In some regions, it’s known as an English harp or fairy bells.
2. Crwth Harp
Described by many to be a cross between a harp and violin, the crwth is a traditional instrument in two flavors. One version is curved in a shape similar to that of a violin, while the other is more boxy. Both versions have flat backs, an enclosed lower section, and an open upper section.
3. Earth Harp
Perhaps the most unusual harp of all, the earth harp is a 42 string instrument that sometimes requires two people to play.
The longest string measures 300 feet long, resulting in an instrument so big it’s impossible to transport. However, the unique sound and resonance of the earth harp make it one of the most audibly stunning types of harp out there.
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4. Electric Harp
In the modern age, instruments that have been modified to use amplifiers are in a class of their own. Electric harps produce quality sound that can be recorded directly. While they’ll never replace the sounds of a traditional harp, electric harps are quite popular with musicians who want something a little different.
5. Gothic Harp
This descendant of Celtic harps is characterized by its high head and sharp angles. It also has a narrow frame and a thinner soundboard than Celtic harps.
6. Harp Guitar
This unusual instrument is both literally and figuratively a coss between harp and guitar. The shape is that of a guitar, complete with fretboard, but there are a total of 20 strings in three rows. When played, they can produce sounds similar to a steel-stringed guitar, wire-stringed harp, and bass guitar all at once.
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7. Harpa Doppia Harp
One of the more unusual types of harp, the harpa doppia predates traditional three-stringed harps and was most popular in Italy and Spain. The harp had three rows of strings, with the middle row being tuned to shaprs.
While it may look more complicated, the strings actually allowed for a full range of notes without the need for additional tuning.
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One of the oldest types of harp still in use, the lyre can be traced as far back as 3200 BCE. This instrument has seen countless iterations in that time, and may almost be considered a small family of instruments as a result.
Regardless, it remains one of the most iconic types of harp and can be found throughout both mythology and modern fantasy.
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9. Medieval Harp
This precursor to the modern harp has many differences from older harps such as the lyre, yet still share many similarities. The earliest versions arose in the 10th century and featured a triangular frame.
Due to their small size and unobtrusive shape, musicians could easily take them from one burg to the next. They also had a simple enough design that they could be painted or otherwise adorned to the musician’s specifications.
10. Neo-Celtic Harp
This modern lever harp resembles its more traditional Celtic cousin, but uses nylon strings instead of gut. They have lower heads than their gothic counterparts and are very popular among performers.
11. Paraguayan Harp
This large Latin harp has some similarities to those you’d find in an orchestra, except the pillar is straight as opposed to curved. Despite the beautiful sound they produce, Paraguayan harps tend to be rarely used.
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12. Psaltery Harp
One of the harps most revered in Judaism, the psaltery was an instrument played by David. These instruments have a square or triangular soundbox and resemble the dulcimer in design. However, they’re generally played by plucking the strings or with a bow, as opposed to a hammer. Psalteries remain popular to this day and aren’t restricted to folk music.
13. Triple Harp
This Welsh harp has three rows of strings, with the outer ones at an angle and the middle aligned straight. The configuration allows for a wide range of musical effects, but requires manual tuning to change the pitch of a note.