Harp Wiki

Wikipedia Commons. Pedal Harp. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpe.png

The pedal harp, often called a “concert harp”, is a relatively modern development. It is usually played in orchestral or symphonies. For many people, a pedal harp is what is envisioned when the word “harp” is mentioned.


The pedal for the harp was first developed in the late 1690s/early 1700s as a mechanism to link the hooks on a hook harp to pedals (hooks were a precursor to levers on non-pedal harps, turned to change the pitch of a string). “By 1720 the number of pedals was increased to seven, one for each note in the diatonic scale”[1].

The pedal harp began to be introduced throughout Europe, finding it’s greatest popularity in Paris, where the manufacture of the instrument achieved further refinement. Composers throughout Europe began to write music aimed at taking advantage of the technological innovation of the pedal harp. This music, now called “classical”, is the primary type of music associated with the pedal harp as it is played in contemporary concert settings. While played initially in salons, the pedal harp soon progressed to the concert hall in the nineteenth century and began to be studied seriously by musicians in harp schools established in major European cities.

Wikipedia Commons. Early Pedal Harp (1791) Museum of châlons-en-Champagne (51) France. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpe_mus%C3%A9e.jpg

“The harp found its early orchestral use in concerti by many baroque and classical composers (Handel, J. C. Bach, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, Dussek, Spohr) and in the opera houses of London, Paris and Berlin and most other capitals. It began to be used in symphonic music by Hector Berlioz but he found performances frustrating in such countries as Germany where qualified harpists and harps were few to be found. Franz Liszt was seminal in finding uses for the harp in his orchestral music, and Mendelssohn and Schubert used it in theatrical music or oratorios. French and Russian Romantic composers particularly expanded its symphonic use. In opera, the Italian composers used it regularly, and Puccini was a particular master of its expressive and coloristic use. Debussy can be said to have put the harp on the map in his many works that use one or more harps. Tchaikovsky also was of great influence, followed by Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Strauss and Wagner. The greatest influence on use of the harp has always been the availability of fine harps and skilled players, and the great increase of them in the U.S. of the 20th century resulted in its spread into popular music”.[2]

“Lyon & Healy, Inc. became the major manufacturer of pedal harps in America by the end of the 19th century. They improved the construction and resulting sound, in part to withstand the rigors of the American climate. These improvements inspired harpists and composers to seek new sounds and music to express its fuller resonance. This fueled a great growth in music for the harp in the 20th century, and the concert careers of many virtuosi.

Wurlitzer made harps for a few decades but ceased by the 1930s. Their harps remain collector’s items. Both companies produced ornately carved and sometimes gilded harps for their clientele. The styles range from gothic to art deco. The Salzedo model harp, named for the great harpist Carlos Salzedo, was designed by the artist Witold Gordon to express his Art Deco aesthetic, and has its design elements grouped in fives: five stripes of silver and five of red on the sounding board, five layers in the columns, five facets to the base, etc.

More recent harp manufacturers include Salvi Harps, Venus Harps, Camac Harps, Aoyama Harps, and some small manufacturers exist around the world.”[3]


Pedal harps differ from other harps not only in size (often close to 6 feet high, weighing in at 75-80 pounds), but in the use of pedals to change the pitches of the strings. It also has the most octaves available of all the harps, usually six and a half octaves, as opposed to two to three and a half for wire strung harps and three to four and a half for lever/folk harps.

Pedal Harp String Tuning: Wikipedia Commons. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harp_pedal.svg

“The pedal harp [has] a straight pillar for support sometimes adorned with a crown at the top, a soundboard, which is pear-shaped with an extended width at the bottom in most harps, while some mostly older pedal harps have soundboards that are straight-sided though widening toward the bottom, a mechanical action made up of over 1,400 parts attached to a harmonically curved neck, a base with seven pedals that are arranged in the following: D C B (left) and E F G A (right). The D B E G A strings are normally colored white while the C strings are colored red and the F strings are colored either black or blue. The strings are initially (before any pedals are activated) tuned to all flat pitches: that is, to the scale of C-flat major”.[3]

Wikipedia Commons. Interior view of a pedal harp, with a view of the mechanics. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harfe_Mechanik_%28Pedalharfe%29_1.jpg

The pedals each affect the tuning of the strings in a particular pitch class. “Each pedal is attached to a rod or cable within the column of the harp, which then connects with a mechanism within the neck. When a pedal is moved with the foot, small discs at the top of the harp rotate. The discs are studded with two pegs that pinch the string as they turn, shortening the vibrating length of the string. The tip of a string is shown in blue. Points in contact with the string are shown in red. Points not in contact with the string are in green”.[3]

Like lever harps, pedal harps can obtain other scales. This is accomplished by adjusting the positions of the pedals. “…each pedal has three positions. With the pedal in its topmost position, the note it controls is flat. Middle position = natural, all the way towards the floor = sharp…[because of this]…the harp has to be generally bigger and heavier in order to hold the complicated mechanism”. [4]


Wikipedia Commons. Hands of a harpist playing. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpist_hands_img_4990-b.jpeg

Like lever/folk harps, the pedal harp is played with the fingertips (pads). The fingers are held in a relaxed, curved position, with the thumb raised upright. By applying pressure on the strings and releasing them (sometimes called “plucking”), sound is produced.

There are different schools of thought regarding the positioning of the arms and hands, including French, Russian, Viennese and other European perspectives. Best known, perhaps, are the French schools, commonly characterized by Grandjany and Salzedo techniques.

“The differences between the French schools lie in the posture of the arms, the shape of the hand and the musical aesthetics. The traditional French schooling calls for the right arm to be lightly rested against the harp using the wrist to sometimes bring the hand only away from the string. The left arm moves more freely. The hands are more-or-less rounded, though the thumb is usually in a low position relative to the hand. Finger technique and control are the emphasis of the technical approach, with extensive use of exercises and etudes to develop this …two very influential 20th-century teachers of this approach were Henriette Renie and Marcel Grandjany. Grandjany’s pupils have sometimes added to their technique the habit of having the knuckle joints curved inward rather than outward, optionally or always, as M. Grandjany’s fingers were wont to do.

The other major French school is the Salzedo school, developed by Carlos Salzedo, who studied with Alphonse Hasselmans at the Paris Conservatoire. Also a virtuoso pianist, he informed his harp playing with what came naturally as a crossover from his piano training. This resulted in a more curved hand, more free movements of the arms, a more wide range of dynamics and tone colors in his playing, which was exceptionally brilliant. He emphasized brilliance and speed in playing”. [3]

Further Reading[]


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. Wikipedia (n.d.). Harp, retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harp
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Wikipedia (n.d.). Pedal Harp, retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedal_harp
  4. Gardner, Kari (n.d.).  Types of Harps. Retrieved from http://harpinfo.blackandgoldharp.com/types.html