The concert harp is a pretty unusual instrument of choice and many people don’t know much about them. Here’s ten things that might come useful in next month’s pub quiz…
1. They have 47 strings
Yes, a mad number, but that is what it is! When the harp become a fashionable ladies’ instrument amongst the well-to-do back in the eighteenth century, different makers had different sizes of harp. Over time these have become more standardised and now they have 47 strings, so that they can play almost as many notes as a piano.
2. The strings are different colours
With so many strings it’s pretty hard to work out which is which, so we have coloured coded them! In music, we use letters to name the notes from A to G (and then they repeat all they way from the bottom to the top). On the harp, the Cs are red and the Fs are black (or sometimes blue) so that we can quickly work out what to play!
3. The strings are made out of animal guts!
Well, not all of them, but the majority of the harp strings are made of animal gut. Even though there are synthetic alternatives nowadays, they still don’t compare for consistent tension and depth of sound as animal gut and so we are still using this traditional material. The bass (lowest and therefore longest strings) are made of steel wires wrapped in cotton and then more steel, and some harpists choose to put synthetic strings at the top of their harps on the tiniest strings, but still the majority are a little gruesomely made out of gut!
4. They have 7 pedals
To allow the harpists to play lots of different music, harps have seven pedals, one for each musical letter. Each pedal has three positions (flat, natural and sharp). When a player needs a different note (accidental) they move the pedal, which they sets a mad system of mechanics in play that shortens or lengthens the strings using pins at the top of the strings. Once I had mastered this lot, it made learning to drive a piece of cake!
5. Harps are hollow
Whilst they look like heavy monsters (and they are pretty heavy!) the big bit that goes in between the harpist’s legs (where the strings go into the middle) is in fact a huge soundbox, and therefore it is hollow. This means that a concert harp is between 35-40kg (just under 6 stone!), rather than being any heavier…!
6. Harps have to be tuned every time that they are moved
… and sometimes even more often than that! Due to the delicate nature of gut strings, they are easily affected by temperature, humidity, and generally easily knocked. This means that every time that they are moved, they need to be retuned.
7. Harpists have 8 fingers
Due to the way that you hold your hands when you play, a harpist cannot get your little fingers on. This means that we only play with four fingers on each hand, not all ten like a pianist would.
8. Harp music looks like piano music
As harpists use two hands with multiple fingers, our music looks like piano music, so that one hand plays one line of music whilst the other hand plays from the other. The only different being that we can’t play as many notes at the same time, but at first glance, it looks identical.
9. It is on the Queen’s flag (and a certain beer bottle…!)
The harp has been the political symbol of Ireland for many centuries. As a result, it is portrayed on the Royal Standard of Great Britain, as the quarter that represents Northern Ireland. Since 1862 it has also been used as the symbol for Guinness Stout, and still appears on their bottle labels.
10. Harping on…
The term ‘harp on’ means to ‘go on and on’. I imagine that those who know me might think this appropriate, so until next time…! x