Harps are stringed musical instruments played with both hands by picking individual strings. The name harp comes from the Old German and Anglo Saxon word, which means to pluck.
As an ancient instrument, many cultures have produced their own versions of the harp, which, while abundant, can make the harp universe rather hard to navigate.
We have prepared this article for you to learn about the many types of harp that have spanned the eons of history, and still exist in the modern day.
Read on as we dive deeper into the realms of the harp and learn more about what makes these unique musical instruments special.
How Many Types Of Harps Are There?
The harp is an undoubtedly enchanting instrument with a rich, cultural history. There are a total of 10 types of harps that exist:
Other Harp Types
Latin American Harps
Modern Lever Harps (Gothic Harps, Celtic Harps, Folk Harps)
Aeolian Harp – Wind Harp
1. Lever Harp
Lever Harps are one of the two main types of harps that are commonly used today. These harps feature levers placed on the harp’s neck at the top of each string.
With this, the harpist can play two different notes on each string and can shift the string’s note to the flat, natural, or sharp with the levers.
As lever harps require you to use your hands to shift the notes, they are not typically preferred by professional players, but more by entry-level harpists.
It is tough to change the levers while playing a complex piece of music, making this type of harp more suited for beginners who need to get used to the instrument by playing basic pieces.
There are many different sizes of lever harps with varying numbers of harp strings. Their cost varies between $2,500-$5,000 USD, which is a relatively affordable price range for harps.
2. Pedal Harp
Pedal Harps are the other primary type of harp and are considered to be a more suited harp for experienced harpists.
They feature pedals instead of levers and allow players to shift the note of a string with their feet, thus facilitating the playing of more complex pieces of music without losing time when adjusting them with their hands – like with lever harps.
In total, there are 7 pedals in a pedal harp, which are placed at the bottom end of the instruments.
The pedals are connected to the discs on the instrument’s neck, allowing the players to change the pitch from a natural position to a sharp or flat one.
If you want to play harp professionally, you will likely have to switch to pedal harps at some point.
It is a complex instrument to master as you need a good level of coordination to use your hands and feet simultaneously to reach the notes in complex music pieces.
Just like the lever harps, there are different-sized models with a varying number of strings.
However, a standard pedal harp has 47 strings with seven strings per octave.
Professional pedal harps cost between $20,000 to $150,000 USD, making them some of the most expensive musical instruments.
Other Types Of Harp
While the main two types of modern harps are pedal and lever, there are many more weird and wonderful harp types in different cultures worldwide.
Some of them are pretty rare today as they were played in past centuries, but many are still commonly used with modernized versions.
1. Wire Harp
The wire harp is a relatively modern type of harp characterized by wire strings instead of the more common nylon strings of traditional harps.
Many brands are offering more and more harps with wire strings, as they are easier to play, and sound slightly more powerful with a bell-like characteristic.
Wire harps are considered Gaelic harps, which are considered highly durable.
The techniques to play wire harps are pretty different than traditional harps as they are played with nails instead of fingers.
Wire harps are commonly used in Irish and Celtic music.
2. Multi-Course Harp
Multi-Course harps are one of the advanced harp types and are suited to experienced players. This is because they have more than one row of strings intersect without touching.
Multi-course harps generally have two rows of strings, but there are also models with three rows. These are called Double Harps and Triple Harps.
With both hands reaching both rows, you can play the double harp completely with sharps and flats, like a piano.
One of the rows again features the pedaled design, while the cross-strung row features sharp and flat notes, akin to the black keys on a piano.
Multi-course harps date back to the Spanish Renaissance in the 17th century when the double harp was invented.
Since then, many different versions of multi-course harps have been conceptualized and used in countries such as France, Belgium, and the U.S.A.
Today there are still double row and triple row harps produced by different brands and makers with gut, nylon, or wire strings.
3. Latin American Harp
The Latin American Harp or Paraguayan Harp is a unique harp model created and primarily used in Paraguay (also sometimes in Venezuela).
These are diatonic harps with 32, 36, 38, 40, 42, or 46 strings. They are typically made of tropical woods, cedar, and pine and feature rounded neck-arches.
This harmonic curve allows for four ranges from brilliant at the top to clear to soft to muted sounds.
Paraguayan harps are often played with fingernails, measuring around 4.5 to 5 feet, and weighing around 8 to 10 pounds.
While they have a truly beautiful sound, they are not too easily found these days except for a few select minorities that continue to use them today in Latin American music.
4. Modern Lever Harps (Gothic Harps, Celtic Harps, Folk Harps)
Modern lever harps such as the Gothic harp, Celtic harp, and folk harp are in the same realm of relatively unique harp models, like the Latin American Harp mentioned above, with a long history behind them.
They are also called the neo-Celtic harps, as many experts prefer to call the harps from Wales and the Gaelic region ‘Celtic harps’.
Neo-Celtic harps feature nylon strings, and an overall gothic design – with narrower and thinner soundboards compared to regular harps.
They often feature a triangular shape and commonly have 22 to 36 strings.
They are mainly used in folk music, Celtic classical music, and less frequently in other genres.
5. Electric Harps
Another modern harp type is the electric harp which can come in the configuration of a lever or pedal harp.
Generally featuring wire strings, electric harps have become more prevalent in recent times thanks to their great sound, amplification system, and relative ease of use – an excellent solution for both beginners and professionals, alike.
The Adungu is a stringed musical instrument of the Alur people in Uganda. Adungu is a small harp with an arched top and 7 to 10 strings.
It is a more basic harp type commonly used in Ugandan music.
The Adungu is made of a hollowed-out slab of wood covered by leather which also acts as a soundboard.
The strings are stretched diagonally from the tuning pegs on the curved wooden neck to the end of the instrument’s body.
Adungu’s are commonly tuned to diatonic significant scales, which reflects the British influence in Uganda in the past century.
Different versions of these instruments range from alto to tenor, to bass.
They are typically played in quartets or quintets and are not played melodically. Instead, they are played to outline chords.
Generally, a bass adungu will play a note followed by the tenor adungu, and so on. The soprano and the alto adungu’s mainly play triads.
The only surviving harp in Asia is the Saung, the national instrument of the Burmese people.
It is often referred to as the ‘Burmese Harp’ and is described as an arched horizontal harp.
In contrast to the traditional western harp’s vertical resonator, Saung harps have horizontal designs.
These harps feature long curved necks, carved out of the root of a tree, along with a string bar that connects to the top of the instrument.
The top of the resonator has a deer hide stretched over it and has four small circular sound holes. Saung harps commonly have measurements around 31.5 inches by 6.3 inches cm by 6.3 inches.
These harps often come with 13 to 16 strings traditionally made of silk, although there are models today that also feature nylon.
Saung harps were considered the most important royal instruments as they were mainly played as chamber music in royal courts of Burma until the 19th century.
After the English effect, the instrument started to be played outside of the courts, but the traditional tunings were abandoned, and players started to tune their instruments to more modern scales of the west.
8. Aeolian Wind Harp
Aeolian harps, or ‘wind harps’ are unique harp types that are – you guessed it – played by the wind.
They are barely considered harps due to the fact they have a different design that is often without a soundboard.
They vary in size and can be as small as a book or as big as a regular harp.
Aeolian harps produce a sound similar to a siren or horn, which you can also hear if you play a regular harp outside on a windy day – fun fact.
What Is The Name Of A Small Harp?
Lever harps are one of the most common and modern harp types, which can come in smaller designs than regular harp sizes.
However, the smallest harp type is the wind harp or aeolian harp, which can be as small as a keychain.
What Are Big Harps Called?
The largest harps today are the pedal harps which are modern harps played by most professional harpists.
They typically have measurements around 1.8 m (6 ft) high, 1.2 m (4 ft) deep, and 55 cm (21+1⁄2 in) wide at the bass end of the soundboard. They weigh around 80 lbs (36 kg).
What Are Hand Harps Called?
Lyre, considered the ‘father of harps’, is sometimes called a hand harp as they are held in hand when played due to their small shapes.
However, lyres are not exactly harps, and the name often confuses people.
Lyres are stringed musical instruments with a long history from 2600 BC to the Middle Eastern civilizations.
They are considered yoke lutes since they resemble lutes more than harps.
Most harps are called lap harps or floor harps as they are played on the lap or the floor, depending on the model and size.
Floor harps are larger, while lap harps are more miniature.