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The Harp - BBC Documentary

We know from archaeological evidence that harps existed at least 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia and Iraq, where simple line carvings of harps have been found on clay tablets and plaques [1].  These early harps looked very different from contemporary harps, although the suggestion of what was to come is present.  More V-shaped or U-shaped than triangular, these early harps also contained many fewer strings, probably because, without the strong sound-box and column seen on later harps, the bow supporting the strings was capable of bearing much less tension.   Harps illustrations on tomb walls in ancient Egypt circa 2,500 show the beginning of a stronger neck, sound-box, and additional strings.

The First Harp uwu[]

To understand the significance of the first time the harp appears among artifacts, one must the consider the "firsts" of everything. How long it might have taken to make that first harp, and what was humanity's creative process? Read More on the First Harp »

Ancient Middle Eastern Harps[]

"The arched harp arose in the Iraq-Iran region around 2900 B.C.E and was replaced around 1900 B.C.E by the angular type, which soon became ubiquitous in western Asia, Egypt, and the eastern Mediterranean region." [2]

Sumeria (2600-2000 B.C.)[]


Some of the earliest specimens of harps and lyres have been found among the grave goods of ancient burials. One such burial was a "cemetery [that] was originally dug outside the walls of the city of Ur... dating to between 2600 BC and 2000 BC". [3] Here, examples of four instruments were unearthed: three lyres and one harp. These instruments boasted exquisite craftmanship and design, using fine materials such as silver, shell inlay, and lapis lazuli.

Depicted use of the bull-headed lyre (at right) at a banquet of a king, being accompanied by a singer. The lyre is supported by a strap across his shoulder.

Assyria, Greece, & Iran (1,000 B.C.-250 B.C.)[]

By 1,000 BC, harps played by the Assyrians had evolved to a more angular shape consisting of a neck/bridge for the strings at a right angle to a base. These harps, seen in many relief carvings, were apparently played both horizontally, with the strings perpendicular to the player, or vertically, with the strings perpendicular to the floor.

Refinements in the angular harp continued and spread throughout the ancient Middle East, leading to the inclusion of rudimentary pillars and more robust sound-boxes.  A vase painting of a Greek woman playing the harp circa 450 BC clearly shows a pillar, while a mosaic of an Iranian harp player from circa 250 BC depicts a large and sturdy sound-box resting against the player’s shoulder.

Ancient Egypt[]

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Asian Harps[]

China (111 B.C.E - 845 C.E.)[]

Depiction of the arched harp from the Mogao Grottoes (cave 327)

Stringed instruments were not the norm in China until the Silk Road "opened up a window toward the west and its ample supply of string instruments. Buddhist travelers on the Silk Road not only introduced their faith to China but also brought light instruments for their rituals." [2] However, Buddhism sharply declined after the first millenium C.E., and after that the harps disappeared for good.

Images of the instruments these Buddhist travelers played were depicted on the walls of the Mogao Caves, which was an outpost in use along the Silk Road from 111 B.C.E. to 845 C.E. [4] "Most silk road sites depict only angular harps... a dominance of angular harps points to influences from Iran or regions farther west." [2] In sites where depictions of arched harps are dominant, it is concluded that these sites received substantial Indian influences.

Irish, Welsh & Scottish Harps[]

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Medieval & Renaissance Harps[]

Wikipedia Commons. Wartburg Harp, Museum of Wartburg Castle. Retrieved from Wikimedia

“While in the ancient East most harps were composed of only two parts, harps of the Western world, even in the Early Christian era, were usually instruments of three parts. To the soundbox (body or resonator) and the string arm (harmonic curve or neck) a third part, designated as a column (although it is sometimes slightly curved rather than straight) was added to the traditionally two-part Eastern harp” (Rensch, p. 29).  Although boasting fewer strings, paintings and manuscript art of Western medieval frame harps, dating to the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries AD,  clearly show the precursor of contemporary harp form, with a neck, sound-box, and pillar.  The graceful shape, common throughout Europe and often terminating in sharp angles at the intersection of neck, column, and sound-box, continued through the Renaissance period, and has come to be known by some as the Gothic harp.

The Wartburg Harp, dating to the late 1300s/early 1400s, is preserved at Wartburg Castle in Eisenbach Germany and is representative of Gothic bray harps used during the late medieval/early Renaissance period. “Its original strings would have been made of gut, and each string would have been fitted with a buzzing ‘bray pin’ which makes all of the strings buzz like a sitar”. [5]  These harps had a characteristic buzzing or droning sound produced by small wooden pins called brays at the base of the strings.

Meanwhile, a distinctive, more rounded form of the harp began to emerge in the British Isles.  Now sometimes called the Gaelic or Celtic harp, these instruments featured robust and heavy sound-boxes, necks, and pillars, and, with the exception of early Welsh harps, used metal rather than gut strings (necessitating the sturdier construction to withstand the substantial string tension).  Some examples of these harps, from as early as the 1400s, survive today, and are the basis of historical reconstructions and reproductions favored by wire-strung harp enthusiasts.

Post Renaissance and Modern[]

Retrieved from Wikipedia Commons. Eliza Ridgely with a Harp, 1818. Current Location: National Gallery of Art

As harps began to grow larger, evolving from lap-held to floor harps in the 17th century, the growing popularity of polyphonic music (arranged in parts for more than one voice or instrument) and the use of chromatic, versus diatonic, scales  led to the development of mechanisms to play sharps and flats.   The first of these, the hook, was used to raise or lower strings and thus produce a different pitch.  Hooks, in turn, eventually evolved into levers. The pedal for the harp was first developed in the late 1690s/early 1700s as a means to link the hooks to pedals for producing variations in pitch.

“Near the end of the 18th century, the single-action pedal harp was greatly improved. A model was introduced that had a soundbox built with a separate pine soundboard and a body that was reinforced with internal ribs… In 1810, a double-action pedal harp was patented in which the seven pedals could be depressed twice and each string passed through two pronged discs instead of just one.  Aside from mechanical improvements, this system is still used today.[6]

By the middle 1800s, the folk (non-pedal) harp had largely fallen out of use, in favor of the pedal harp.  A convention of traditional folk harpers held in Belfast, Ireland, in 1792, produced only a handful of players.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Alan Stivell, a Breton musician, rediscovered early Celtic harp music and was largely responsible for the revival of the folk harp and it’s re-introduction to mainstream culture.

Double-Strung Harps[]

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Chromatic or Cross-Strung Harps[]

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Spanish & South American Harps[]

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Single-Action & Double-Action Pedal Harps[]

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Double-Action Pedal Harps[]

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Jazz Harp[]

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Electronic Harps[]

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Visual Timeline of Harps Through History[]

Further Reading/Media[]



Web Articles[]



Note about this article. Some of this content has been copy-pasted from Peggy Coates' website dorveille.com The website has disappeared, but the content remains on the internet archives. Attempts have been made to get in touch with the original author, but have been unfruitful. Should Peggy come across this content, please get in touch with @harpwiki!

  1. Rensch, Roslyn (1989). Harps and Harpists.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Agnew, Neville. "Harps on the Ancient Silk Road." Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of an International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 1997. 117-124. Print.
  3. Starr, Jerald Jack. "Exploration of the Royal Tombs of Ur." Exploration of the Royal Tombs of Ur. Web. 4 Apr. 2015. <http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/117801.html>.
  4. "Mogao Caves." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogao_Caves>.
  5. Chadwick, Simon (n.d.).  The Wartburg Harp. Retrieved from http://www.earlygaelicharp.info/harps/wartburg.htm
  6. Harp.com. History of the Harp. Retrieved from: http://us.harp.com/history-of-the-harp.htm