Harp vs Lyre (Differences & Which Is Easier?)

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Most people are familiar with the beautiful look and sound of the harp, and many have heard of a lyre but may be tempted to think it is just a tiny harp.

While both are stringed instruments, and both have similar origins, the harp and lyre are actually quite different. 

Harps differ from Lyres in terms of sound, sound production, construction, size, and versatility.

A harp is typically much larger than a lyre and may be placed on the floor while a lyre is held in the lap. Harps generally have more strings than a lyre and produce a louder sound due to the instrument’s design.

While both instruments have been played for thousands of years, and both often invoke the ethereal world of Greek myths, there are several differences between the instruments.

Read on if you are interested in picking up the harp or lyre as a new instrument or if you are just generally curious about the differences between harps and lyres. 

Are Harps and Lyres the Same Instrument?

No. Both are stringed instruments, but the instruments differ greatly. In addition, there isn’t one type of harp or lyre–both come in various styles, shapes, and sizes.

Since these are ancient instruments, they have evolved in a variety of ways across the world. This history makes both types of instruments fascinating and worth picking up if you are a string player. 

There are a few characteristics of each that are good for comparison. 

History of Harps and Lyres

Harps and lyres have been around for a very long time (estimates of their origins vary from between 3300 BCE and 2500 BCE). Their origin is thought to be in Egypt, and they were widely used in the Mediterranean and the middle east in the early years. 

Since that time, harps and lyres have been used in a wide range of cultures across the world. 

Many believe the lyre was a derivative of early harps. The instruments were probably used to accompany singers or played with other instruments or to accompany dance or other performances. 

Paraguay and Ireland both have the harp as their national instrument. 

What Shape is a Harp?

A harp has many strings that extend perpendicularly from a hollow resonator. Harps typically have between 22 and 47 strings, depending on size. 

Harps can come in a triangular or bow shape. A triangular harp has a large pillar that supports the harp and strings. Large concert harps may be as tall as six feet. Large pedal harps can weigh over 100 lbs., though most are in the 74-90 lb range. 

A small bow harp can be played on the lap, though a larger harp will be placed on the ground. A bow harp doesn’t have the large pillar of a triangular harp but will be shaped as a bow with fewer strings.  

What Shape is a Lyre?

Lyres come in a variety of shapes depending on region and design. In a lyre, strings are stretched from a yoke down across a bridge, similar to a guitar. As opposed to a harp, the strings on a lyre are parallel to the soundboard. 

Lyres often have a curved neck, though some designs may have a straight neck. Some lyres have arms, depending on style.

Lyres vary in size as well, though most lyres are smaller than concert harps and are meant to be held in the lap when played. The number of strings on each instrument will vary.

Do Harps and Lyres Sound the Same?

Lyres and harps have similar sounds, though there are several differences. Harps are often slightly lower-pitched than lyres. Many musicians compare the sound of a harp to that of a guitar

Harp strings are attached to a flat sound box that projects the sound. Lyre strings reverberate into the instrument’s body across a bridge. The body of the lyre tends to dampen the sound, while the harp’s body tends to amplify its sound.

For this reason, harps are generally louder than lyres. 

As we know, a harp can be heard across a large orchestra. Lyres have a smaller sound and may require amplification if played along with other instruments. 

That said, many harp and lyre players love the ethereal sound of both the harp and the lyre. 

Does a Harp Have More Strings Than a Lyre?

A concert harp generally has 47 strings, though smaller harps may have as few as 22 strings. A lyre typically has fewer strings, in the 7-10 range, depending on the design. A lyre with more strings will have a fuller sound than a more basic lyre. 

A harp will be a more versatile instrument and can play a wider range of music due to the larger number of strings. 

Are Harps and Lyres Played the Same?

Both can be plucked with just the fingers or with a pick. Traditionally lyres were played with a plectrum made of wood, metal, or ivory. A small lyre may also have a shoulder strap similar to a guitar. 

A lyre requires two hands because one hand will have to hold the lyre. A harp can be picked or strummed with one or two hands, depending on the style.

The strings on a harp are typically color-coded for easier identification–remember, a harp has many more strings than a lyre. 

In addition, a harp is typically played with only four fingers, not the pinky finger, because it is so short. 

Which is Easier to Learn, Harp or Lyre?

If you are just starting out, a lyre tends to be easier to learn than a harp. Large harps have a wide neck and will require a great deal of finger dexterity to span several frets.

However, you may have experience with stringed instruments and want to learn how to play the multiple strings of the harp. In that case, you may want to skip the lyre.  

Keep in mind a harp may require the use of a full hand to stop the strings. If you are sitting and playing the harp, you will want to lean it against the chair or a table, so your arms don’t have to support the weight. 

A lyre is typically cheaper than a harp, so it is maybe a good introductory instrument if you just want to get the hang of this type of stringed instrument. 

That said, a harp lends itself to more modern music and is more versatile than a lyre. You can play a large variety of both modern and classical tunes on a harp.

If you are interested in learning the harp, many pros recommend starting on a lever harp and then graduating to a pedal harp once you are comfortable. 

Really you should pick up whichever instrument sounds best to you–so it’s a great idea to try both out if you can. 

Wrapping Up

The lyre and harp have a number of similarities and have been used for similar purposes throughout human history. It is even possible that the lyre evolved from the harp. 

If you are interested in learning the lyre or harp, there are several important differences you should consider when choosing an instrument. After that, it’s up to what sound you like best and what music you want to play. 


How Many Strings Should A Beginner Harp Have?

Many experts recommend starting with 34 strings, which will allow a student to play a variety of music. For smaller students just starting out, a teacher may recommend a harp with 27 strings. 

Is Harp Easier Than Guitar?

It depends on who you ask. Many believe that the harp is easier to learn than the guitar or violin, though, of course, it depends on the individual student.

Many teachers point out that you will probably sound good on a harp no matter what, even when just starting out. This may be a good reason to learn the harp as an introductory stringed instrument. 

Is It Hard To Learn Lyre?

Many people love the lyre for its entrancing and magical sound. Many consider it to be one of the easier stringed instruments to learn, even if you haven’t ever played a musical instrument.

One problem may be finding a teacher since the lyre is an unusual instrument. You can find information here. 

Where Do I Buy A Lyre?

If you are looking into purchasing your own lyre, there are a number of options at different price points (like with any instrument). You can see a buying guide here. 

How Expensive Is A Harp?

If you are thinking about harp vs. lyre, considering only cost, you will want to go with the lyre. You can get a decent lyre for a few hundred dollars, though a harp will run into the thousands. 

A decent lever harp will cost around $4,000-$6,000, and a more advanced pedal harp will be over $15,000. You can purchase a harp at Guitar Center or at local, independent music stores. 

Want to learn more about the Harp? Check out our guide to the 10 Types of Harps!