Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Instrument Biography: The Harmonica

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The harmonica and the accordion are both reed organs. In the interest of space, their biographies have been broken out of the main reed organ (harmonium) article. (Reed organ and accordion articles are coming soon.)

The harmonica may have a reputation as a folk instrument, but it was invented for classical music and is really rather interesting despite its humble circumstances today. It came about as a result of experimenting with organ reeds and various ways of making them vibrate, including forms that include the accordion, the concertina, and the harmonium.

The first time I realized that the harmonica was a serious instrument was when I worked in a little ice cream parlor in high school. The owner was an Israeli immigrant who’d been the dance camp harmonica player at a kibbutz for American tourists. When Schlomo went in the back room and played, it was like a whole orchestra had gone in there with him. He played for such notables as Ray Bolger (of “Wizard of Oz” fame), who one day wandered into the shop hoping to reconnect with him.

It’s not a long history, but I think that you’ll find that it’s an interesting one.

The harmonica is a reed organ, but unlike the accordion or harmonium, human lungs are used as the bellows. The harmonica is also called the French harp, blues harp, and mouth organ among other names (see below for a longer list). It’s used in nearly every musical genre world-wide, but is given a starring role in blues, American folk, jazz, country, and rock and roll.

Harmonica History

The original mouth organs wouldn’t be recognized outside of rural China these days. I was fortunate enough to see these (they’re called shengs) used for folk dances on my trip there in 2010, in the province of Yunnan. Basically, a gourd is studded with long reeds, and a the player blows through a pipe attached to the gourd, through the neck of the gourd itself, or through a tube that crosses the length of the reeds. Some look a bit like a porcupine with very long spines, some look vaguely like a portative organ, and others look like a sideways panpipe. All three styles have very long reeds for a wind instrument, between 1-4 feet in length.

The Chinese sheng sounds more flutelike than harmonica-like to western ears, but it is nevertheless the parent of the harmonica. It’s likely that, along with the panpipe, the sheng was brought to Europe as a novelty and European instruments that suited European sensibilities evolved from it.

Free reed instruments, like the sheng, were common throughout Asia for centuries before they came to Europe and they were already known in Europe when a German named Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann got hold of the idea. He’s often cited as the inventor, but other instrument makers were also busy coming up with similar instruments. It isn’t known who really invented it, but Buschmann gets the credit, claiming that he got his idea from pitch pipes used to tune organs . His harmonica was only 2.75 inches long.

Mouth-blown free-reed instruments appeared in the US, South America, the UK, and all around Europe at around the same time.

Chamber harmonicas were available in Vienna before 1824, and the blow and draw mechanism followed shortly. Harmonicas were soon popular all over Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Harmonica makers proliferated and soon machines were used to punch out the covers and speed up the work. Everyone, from weavers to clockmakers got into the new industry, and soon varieties included tremolo, chromatic, bass, chord, and octave harmonicas. (More on those in the Structure section.)

Wherever it began, by the mid-19th century, its popularity had grown, especially in the Germanic regions, with cloth weavers, clock makers, and everyone else getting involved in manufacturing them. By the end of the 19th century, harmonicas were big business, and by the early 20th century, harmonicas were mass produced.

Harmonicas were popular on both sides of the American Civil War (1860s), and famous wild west personalities Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid were both said to play them. Harmonicas crept back to their classical music roots by the 1930s, but that wouldn’t last long.

There was a harmonica shortage in the US during World War II because wood and metals were needed for military efforts. Also, primary makers were in Germany and Japan, the US’s enemies at that time. A Dutch-American called Finn Magnus figured out how to make a molded plastic instrument with molded plastic combs and fewer pieces. The sound was quite different from the metal and wood version, and furthered the attitude that the harmonica was a toy. William Kratt got a patent in 1952 and the War Department allotted a rationed supply of brass to his factory so that the Red Cross could have harmonicas to pass out to overseas GIs.

After the war, the harmonica moved north with the blues as African-American workers headed to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and New York to find work in the 1950s. Once musicians began to amplify the guitar, double-bass, and voices, it didn’t take long for the harmonica to get into the act.

Japan began manufacturing harmonicas in the early 1900s, and by mid century, there were three companies making them, some of which continue to this day (two of them are Yamaha and Suzuki—don’t they also make motorcycles? Is there something to that?). Japan’s harmonica manufacturing was interrupted by World War II and has been slow to recover fully. Despite the hardship, they were famous for the tremolo instruments, and later for innovating major- and minor-tuned harmonicas.

The harmonica was often associated with the poor in the early 20th century (much like the dear little hurdy-gurdy in earlier times) because of its association with African-American music, hillbilly music, and jug bands. The harmonica only returned to its association with classical music in the 1930s.

Harmonica music became popular in China alongside the sheng, and by the 1930s (well before Mao Tse-Tung and the Cultural Revolution), interest in it had spread to Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. By the 1950s, the chromatic harmonica was popular in Asia as well as Europe and the Americas, and western players were invited to perform all over Asia. The Chinese YMCA Harmonica Orchestra had 100 members in the 1960s and the harmonica’s popularity grew steadily until the 1990s. Although there are still Chinese participants in international harmonica festivals, interest there, much as elsewhere, has dropped off.

These days, harmonicas are made world-wide. Major manufacturers are in Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, and the US.

Surprisingly, in recent years, the harmonica has been used for strengthening the lungs by the medical community. Inhaling and exhaling against a strong resistance are good for the lungs, helping to develop a strong diaphragm, and increasing the volume of air within the lung. Pulmonary specialists suggest that playing the harmonica can help COPD patients as much as a muscle trainer or spirometer. It’s also a nice incentive to exercise if you can make a little music while you’re at it.

Harmonica Structure

The harmonica is a flat, rectangular, metal box, usually small (most are a little wider than the palm of your hand and less than two inches long), with slit-like openings on both of its long sides. Each slit leads to a pair of reeds inside the box: one works by air pressure (blowing) and the other works by suction (inhaling). The instrument is placed against the lips and the player blows into or inhales (called a draw) against the slits, moving it back and forth to change notes along the scale.

The embouchure of the lips and tongue direct air into and out of one or more holes along the length of the mouthpiece. Behind the holes are chambers containing at least one reed. The reed is a flat, elongated spring made of brass or bronze and secured at one end over the slot. The slot is the airway. The free end alternately blocks and unblocks the airway as the player blows or sucks on it, and the vibrations produce sound.

Reeds are tuned to specific pitches by the manufacturer, and cannot be easily tuned by a player to change key signatures. Tuning involves changing the reed’s length, the weight near the free end, or the stiffness near the fixed end.

If the reed is fixed below the edge of its slot rather than within the plane of it, it’s easier to get the reed to move using air flow, vibrating to produce sound or closing the slot. There are two kinds of reeds within each slot: a blow reed and a draw reed. Older, less flexible harmonicas used flaps of leather (or plastic, later) as valves or wind-savers, to block the non-playing reed.

Longer, heavier, and more flexible reeds produce low notes, shorter, lighter, and stiff reeds make high notes. There is both a blow reed and a draw reed in the same chamber, which allows them to be played separately.

Pitch is produced by making the reeds vibrate, and each reed’s pitch can be altered by changing the mouth’s embouchure. This is called “bending” the notes. It’s possible to bend a single reed in a chromatic harmonica (or other styles that have wind-savers), but also to both raise and lower the pitch in pairs of reeds within the same chamber in a diatonic harmonica (or other styles with unvalved reeds). Such two-reed changes involve making both reeds sound at the same time.

it’s also possible to lower or raise (called overbending, overblowing, or overdrawing) the pitch on a diatonic or other unvalved harmonica. Such two-reed pitch changes involve sound production from the normally silent reed (the draw reed while the player is blowing or vice versa). Overbending, where the blowing or sucking is harder than necessary to merely create a sound, allows otherwise diatonic (do-re-me) instruments to play a chromatic scale. Overtones can be achieved by changing the size of the mouth’s cavity.

Vibrato is achieved by changing the way the harmonica is held, by quickly cupping the hands around the harmonica, or by shaking the head (rather than by fluctuations in wind speed, like on other wind instruments). This head-shaking method is most commonly used in blues, where the breath quickly alternates between two holes. This is slightly stronger than ordinary vibrato in that it changes the pitch by a greater distance than would be found in the vibrato of a stringed instrument or a voice (or a tremolo harmonica). Vibrato can also be achieved with the throat as it is with other wind instruments, although the sucking gesture is unique to the harmonica.

It’s possible to breathe noisily and rhythmically or to chant while playing the harmonica, which adds an interesting texture to the sound. Tongue blocking allows chords by preventing airflow past unused reeds, and hand effects can create bumpy or vibrato sounds.

The harmonica has three basic parts: the comb, the reed plates, and the cover plates

The comb is the main body of the instrument and contains the air chambers that cover the reeds. It looks like a wide-toothed hair comb. Combs were originally made from wood but are now usually plastic or metal—even titanium for high-end instruments. A wooden comb might expand slightly in response to the player’s breath, making it uncomfortable to play. The determining factor for the various comb materials is durability.

Combs often shrink over time, especially in chromatic harmonicas with thin dividers between chambers. This can lead to cracks because the comb is held in place by nails. Some players soak their wooden-combed harmonicas in water so that the slight expansion makes a seal between the comb and reed plates and to makes the covers more airtight. Modern instruments are less prone to swelling and contracting, although some players still dip their instruments into water because of how it affects the tone and eases bending notes.

The reed plate is the housing for the reeds. Reeds are usually brass, but steel, aluminum, and plastic are often used. Individual reeds are riveted to the reed plate, but they might also be welded or screwed in. Reeds fixed on the inside (within the comb’s chamber) respond to blowing and those on the outside respond to suction.

Most harmonicas have the reed plate attached to the comb or another reed plate by screws or bolts. A few brands still use the traditional method of nailing, and some have the reed plates held in place by tension (such as the World War II-era All-American models). If plates are bolted to the comb, the individual reed plates can be easily replaced. Reeds eventually go out of tune through normal use, and some notes are more likely to fail than others, so this ease of substitution saves the instrument from the second-hand store.

Finn Magnus’ all-plastic harmonica molded the reed and reed plate out of s single piece of plastic. This was glued to the comb.

Cover plates cover the reed plates and are usually made of metal, although wood and plastic are also used. Because they project sound, cover plates determine the tonal quality of the harmonica. There are two types of cover plates: the traditional open design of stamped metal or plastic, and enclosed designs, such as the Hohner and Suzuki high-end models, which are louder.

Additional features might include wind-savers, mouthpieces, slides, bells, neck racks, and amplification devices.

Wind-savers are one-way valves made from thin strips of plastic, knit paper, leather, or Teflon that is glued to the reed plate. They’re used when two reeds share a cell and leakage through the non-playing reed is significant. When a draw note is played, the wind-saver valve on the blow reed slot is sucked shut, preventing air from leaking through the inactive blow reed. These are common to chromatic harmonicas, chord harmonicas, and many octave-tuned harmonicas.

The mouthpiece is placed between the air chambers of the instrument and the player’s mouth. This can be part of the comb, the cover, or an entirely separate unite, secured by screws (such as in chromatics). In many harmonicas, the mouthpiece is purely ergonomic. In the traditional slider-based chromatic harmonica, the mouthpiece also provides a groove for the slide.

Special features, such as bells that could be rung by pushing a button, were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would be fun to find one of those, wouldn’t it?

Harmonicas can be placed into a neck rack so that the player’s hands are free to play another instrument (acoustic guitars are a popular choice). The neck rack clamps the harmonica between two metal brackets, which are attached to a loop of metal that passes around the neck. Folk musicians often use neck racks, and lots of pop and blues players do too.

The harmonica may need to be amplified, especially blues harmonicas. This can be achieved with microphones and tube amplifiers. Some varieties of microphones allow the harmonica to be audible even over amplified electric guitars.

There are many types of harmonicas, including diatonic (the do-re-mi scale), chromatic (all the notes on a piano, black and white), tremolo, octave, orchestral, chord, bass, ChengGong, and pitch pipes.

Diatonic harmonicas (do-re-me) continue to be popular in European folk music, and blues and country have joined in, along with American folk. These instruments are in one particular key signature, and special techniques (such as bending) are required to get notes other than those in that specific collection of notes.

The chromatic harmonica uses a button-activated sliding bar to redirect air from the hole in the mouthpiece to the selected reed. This allows 12 notes in an octave scale rather than eight, as in the diatonic instrument.

The tremolo harmonica has two reeds per note, one slightly sharp and one slightly flat. This makes a wavering sound, like vibrato. This instrument is more popular in Asia than elsewhere, but you can also hear them on ballads, gospel, Latin, and European folk styles.

The octave harmonica is similar in structure to the tremolo harmonica, but the two reeds in each chamber are tuned to in octaves. This makes a richer sound than ordinary harmonicas, but because each note is reeded twice, has less range. These are common in Old-Time, Cajun, and Irish music.

There are eight kinds of orchestral harmonicas, offering a nice variety of sounds vaguely resembling orchestral instruments. The most common is the Horn harmonica, often found in Asia. These have a single large comb with blow-only reeds on both top and bottom, with each reed sitting inside a single cell of the comb. One version mimics the layout of a piano or mallet instrument, with the natural notes in the lower reed plate and the sharps and flats directly above in the upper reed plate. Orchestral harmonicas come in several pitch ranges, and usually cover two or three octaves. There’s another type that has the notes laid out all in a neat row, called the polyphonia or chromatic that play the same note on both blow and draw.

The chord harmonica has up to 48 chords in major, minor, seventh, augmented, and diminished versions. Notes are clustered together, four at a time, each sounding a different chord on blow and draw. Expensive versions have two reeds for each note, tuned in octaves, and gives a richer and louder sound.

Bass harmonicas are double-decked, having two hinged bodies connected along their length, with the natural notes on the lower instrument and the sharps and flats on the upper. Its range is about the same as that of a bass guitar, about two octaves, starting two octaves below middle C. Each hole of the mouthpiece accesses two reeds, tuned an octave apart. The instrument only works by blowing (the draw aspect is absent). These instruments offer a wonderful spooky sound, and I’d sure like to have one!

ChengGong harmonicas have a main body and a sliding mouthpiece that moves along a groove. This nifty thing is tuned to C major, but plays different chords and note combinations depending on the location of the mouthpiece in relationship to the reeds. The body is a 24-hole diatonic harmonica with an 11-hole mouthpiece. It’s capable of playing single-note melodies as well as double stops over three diatonic octaves using tongue-blocking. Blowing and drawing produce the same notes (like a tremolo).

A pitch pipe is a special harmonica that provides reference notes for singers, one note at a time (multiple notes are not possible). Chromatic pitch pipes provide all 12 notes, including the starting note at the octave. Pitch pipes sold to string players (such as guitarists and violin players) only provide the open string pitches.

Harmonica music can be in tablature as well as notation. Tablature indicates where the note is on the instrument rather than duration and pitch alone. This can be easier for untrained musicians to use, much as having the chords spelled out for guitar players does. Text Tab is another common type of harmonica tablature, and indicates when to blow or draw on the note by marking the position of the hole with a B for blow and a D for draw. Tablature usually aligns with lyrics to show tuning and timing rather than above notation.

Regular notation is also used, sometimes with a circled number below each note telling the position of the hole to play. An up or down arrow indicates whether the hole is blown or drawn. Curved arrows are used for bent notes. Cool, eh?

Harmonica Name

The harmonica was originally called a mouth organ both in German and in English. Buschmann called it a Mundäoline or aura. The French call it the harmonica a bouche.

In German, it’s a Mundharmonika (the accordion is the Handharmonika) In Scandinavian languages, the accordion is called the harmonica and a harmonica is a mundharmonika. In Slavic languages, the names are similar or the same as in Scandinavian languages.

In Italian, it’s an armonica a bocca, in Spanish, it’s armonica. In English the slang terms include French harp, blues harp, mouth organ, hand reed, licking stick, pocket sax, toe pickle, tin sandwich, ten-holed tin-can tongue twister. The Mississippi saxophone is a special amplified harmonica.

A Viennese fellow called Ernst Schmidt invented a form of harmonica called an apollolyra, with 44 reeds controlled by keys.

In French and German, the name harmonica is also used for a variety of instruments of the xylophone type (tuned strips of wood—harmonica de bois, Hotz-harmonika), steel (harmonica a lames d’acier, Stahiharmonika—or glockenspiel), stone (harmonica a lumes de pierre). The Ziehharmonika (German) is an accordion.

The glass harmonica is not a harmonica at all, but is a series of nested glass cups mounted sideways on a pole. It’s more of a xylophone than a harmonica. (It has no reeds at all.)

Harmonica Composers

Classical composers include Ralph Vaughn Williams, Darius Mihaud, Malcolm Arnold, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Arthur Benjamin. Jazz, blues, country, Cajun, and pop composers are too numerous to even begin to list. Instead, let’s look at who plays the harmonica.

Harmonica Players

Abraham Lincoln notoriously carried a harmonica in his pocket, and wild-westerners Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid both played.

For more popular genres of music, the number of players is really really long. So I’ll just bundle them up in bulk. These lists don’t even pretend to be comprehensive.

Pop: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Lennon (Love Me Do, Please Please Me, I’ll Get You, and I Should Have Known Better, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, Rocky Racoon, Oh Yoko), Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Beck, Stevie Wonder, Al “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Jack Bruce (Cream), John Sebastian (The Lovin’ Spoonful), Donovan, Taj Mahal, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones (Rolling Stones), Huey Lewis, John Mayall, Paul Jones (Manfred Mann and The Blues Band), Tom Petty, Scott Thurston (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Roger Daltrey (The Who), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Bono (U2), Rick Davies (Supertramp), Sly Stone (Sly and the Family Stone), Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds.

Scottish or Irish folk: Benny Gallagher, Philip Achille, John and Pip Murphy, Noel Battle, Austin Berry, James Conway, Andy Irvine, Mick Kinsella, Brendan Power, Joel Bernstein, Don Meade, Paul Moran, Tom Byrne, Rick Epping.

Blues: Jimmy Reed and John Hammond Jr., Sonny Boy Williamson II, Big Walter Horton, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, Norton Buffalo, Jerry Portnoy, Lazy Lester, Sugar Blue, Billy Branch, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel, Junior Wells, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Kim Wilson, Slim Harpo, Howard Levy, Jason Ricci, Carlos del Junco, Chris “Buddha” Michalek, Frederic Yonnet, Adam Gussow, Paul Nebenzahl.

“Race records” (meant for black audiences in the 1920s) were popular and featured DeFord Bailey, Hammie Nixon, Walter Horton, Sonny Terry.

Hillbilly: Frank Hutchison, Gwen Foster.

Jug Bands: Memphis Jug Band.

Classical: Larry Adler, Philip Achille, Nikki Gadout, Steve Baker, Johny Mueller, Will Burger.

Jazz: Philip Achille, Yvonnick Prene, Jean “Toots” Theilemans (also known for his whistling and his contribution to the theme song from Sesame Street).

Qawali (Sufi devotional music): Philip Achille.

Latin American: Flavio Guimaraes.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

”The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Playing the Harmonica,” by Randy F. Weinstein, and William Melton. Alpha Imprint of Penguin Group, New York, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by The Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co, Inc., New York, 1997.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews and Wendy Thompson, Lorenz Books, Leicestershire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Carl Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” Edited by Stanly Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

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Instrument Biography: The Harp

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The harp is one of the oldest stringed instruments on the planet. It’s a close relative of the lyre and the psaltery, and is a plucked stringed instrument in the family of instruments called “chordophones” that includes lutes, lyres, and zithers.

The lyre is a U-shaped piece of wood with a cross bar to which the strings are attached from the base of the U. The harp is made with three pieces of wood that form a triangle, and strings of metal, gut, or twisted hair that go from the sounding board side (near the player) to the neck (at the top) where the tuning pegs are, and with the third side providing structural integrity. (There’s a LOT of tension from those strings.)

The lyre and harp are used similarly—the lyre has strings of a single length, and the harp uses multiple lengths and thicknesses of strings for tuning. The larger scale and tunability of the harp was much in demand by the Middle Ages. When I began my research on the harp, I’d intended to say that the Middle Ages were the harp’s zenith in popularity, but really, the harp started popular and stayed popular until the end of the 20th century.

Early harps had anywhere from six or seven to 25 strings. Metal strings were (and are) plucked with fingernails to give a harsh, brilliant tone, and gut strings make a softer sound and are played with the pads of the fingertips. By the late Middle Ages, there were two types of harp: a massive Irish harp with metal strings and a lighter Gothic harp with gut strings. But I get ahead of myself.

A Harp History

The harp is thought to have originated in Syria, and Francis W. Galpin (musicologist, early 20th centur) calls the harp the most characteristic of Sumerian musical instruments. There’s a restored specimen from around 2700 BCE in the British Museum that is thought to be the Sumerian harp of Ur (where the biblical Abraham came from). It has 11 strings. Other examples, in vestiges or images, have as many as 15 strings.

The oldest Sumerian harps were bow-shaped (like a bow and arrow’s bow) and strung cross-wise. The Assyrian harps were upright and strung vertically, like modern harps. Both lacked the fore-pillar, so they might be considered lyres, if you are particular about these things.

The harp appears in Egypt in the 15th century BCE. Apparently the subjugated kings of southwestern Asia sent tributes to Egyptian rulers that included dancing and singing girls and their various strange instruments. Egypt’s music underwent a significant change when these things were introduced to them and nearly all of their own ancient instruments were discarded. It wasn’t long before the standing harp became larger and gained strings; shrill oboes replaced the softer flutes; and new forms of lyres, the new lute, and small hand drums that came from Asia became the sound of Egyptian music. Marrying well with the Arabic sensibilities, Egyptian music became noisier and more stimulating as a result. (Think belly dance music.)

But the Egyptians weren’t the only ones borrowing. Everyone was learning from other cultures. The Egyptians borrowed musical technology from Mesopotamia and Syria as well as from Asia; the Jews borrowed from the Phoenicians; and the Greeks from Crete, Asia Minor, and Phoenicia. And once someone heard the new sounds, they had to try it too. It wasn’t long before the harp, lyre, double oboe, and hand drums were played in Egypt, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Babylonia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy—all around the Mediterranean Sea.

The bowed harp was popular in Egypt from around 1550 to 1080 BCE. With only three or four strings and a pointy bottom for support, these harps reached sizes of up to six feet tall.

Harps appear among Greece’s favorite instruments, but they preferred the lyre type, especially within the cult of Apollo. Archeologists have found a Babylonian vase that shows two harps, one with five strings, thought to ward off suffering, and the other with two, thought to be the more sacred of the two styles.

The second Temple of Jerusalem, built in the late 6th century BCE on the site of the original Temple of Solomon, was a place for public worship until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. In it, Jewish religious observances centered around the sacrifice of a lamb by the priests as assisted by Levites (members of the priestly class, including musicians), and witnessed by laypeople. Choirs of Levites sang the psalms assigned to the day, accompanied by harp and psaltery (see Instrument Biography: Psaltery, coming soon).

As the religion of Islam gained in popularity, harps were pushed out of Arabic music. The prophet Mohamed said that music had no place in secular culture, and he specifically banned instrumental music as a forbidden pleasure. He mentioned the lute, the harp, and the flute, and he also banned the drums as frivolous and morally loose. Sacred music was very specific in Islam and has remained nearly unaltered to our own time.

But Muslims weren’t the only ones to ban musical instruments. Eusebios (c260-c340 CE), who was a Catholic bishop of Caesarea in Palestine and author of “Ecclesiastical History” (the most important Catholic church history of ancient times), also disapproved of the use of ancient instruments of any kind, including the harp. He says that the body of living souls singing God’s praises made up a living psaltery and that more than the voices was an unseemly excess.

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c220 CE) was a little more lenient. He limited instruments for Christian worship to the harp and lyre because he worried about pagan influences with the others. (It must be noted here that it was women who were playing the drums. There is some misogyny involved with this sort of ruling.)

But the harp couldn’t be quieted. By the 8th century, harps appeared in Pictish stone sculptures in Scotland. These were the triangular (not bowed) style. In secular music, the harp spread all over Europe. It was played from the early to the late Middle Ages without much alteration. But that wasn’t true of the music itself, so by the late middle ages, the need for greater range meant greater number of strings.

The harp was much used in the Middle Ages as an expressive solo instrument and as accompaniment to monophonic (meaning no harmonies) singing. Its repertoire was improvised or memorized, partly because there was no notation yet (see the History of Music Notation), and partly because that was the taste of the time.

In France, the jongleurs (a sort of precursor to the troubadours) in the 11th century were expected to play an instrument—usually a bowed instrument, like the vièle, or a harp, guitar, lute, psaltery or small organ.

By the 12th century, troubadours had taken the harp on as a primary instrument, and a little later, the trouvères used it too. Because music notation was in its infancy, we don’t have anything but the lyrics for most of this music, but experts guess that it sounded a lot like the better-documented church music, as it was a habit, then and now, for one to borrow from the other.

In France, 13th century trouvères used various sizes of harps, each diatonically tuned (do-re-me). Chromatic harps (like all the notes on the piano, black and white, played in succession from one end to the other, one at a time) didn’t come into use until the end of the 16th century.

In the 14thto the 16th centuries, instruments were chosen for their ability to be loud. This distinction was called haut (French for “high”) and bas (French for “low”) for their volume, not their pitches. The most common low instruments were harps, vièles, lutes, psalteries, portative organs, transverse flutes, and recorders. Among the high instruments were shawms, cornets, and trumpets. Percussion instruments, including kettle drums, small bells, and cymbals, were common in ensembles of all kinds.

During the Renaissance, the harp was pushed aside by the fully chromatic lute, but a chromatic harp, with two rows of strings, was developed in the 16th century and revived it a bit. By 1600, the triple harp had been invented, with three rows of strings and 4 1/2 octaves. It became a useful continuo (a specific kind of accompaniment) instrument in the early Baroque.

By the Baroque, harps were taller, wider, and typically chromatic, having a separate string for each of the 12 notes in a chromatic scale. Even more successful than the chromatic harp was the Hakenharfe, or hooked harp, invented in the Tyrol in the late 17th century. The Hakenharfe was tuned diatonically (do-re-me) and had hooks on the neck (the top portion). The player pressed the string against the hook, causing the note to sharpen (be slightly higher in pitch, like the difference between a white note on the piano and its neighboring black note). This was the forerunner of today’s sharping levers. (There’s more about sharping levers in the structure section.) There’s a similar instrument to the Hakenharfe still in use for folk music in the Czech Republic.

The pedal harp was invented in Germany around 1720. All of the most commonly sharpable strings were attached to a single mechanism that could be actuated by the player’s feet. The older system of levers and hooks necessitated taking one hand away from playing the strings to press a string against the hook, so using the feet allowed more intricate tunes with both hands available throughout. There were seven pedals, all of which could be fixed in a depressed position, facilitating a modern key signature. (Older music had a somewhat more fluid attitude about sharps and flats. Modern key signatures insist that every time you play a certain note in any octave, it will always be treated the same way.)

It is the Baroque sensibility that most influenced the look of modern harps, with their classical-looking columns for the pillar. It was then that harps began to appear with the filigree and other excesses of the German Baroque.

The 17th and 18th centuries brought other changes to the harp, like a pointed harp in England, an arpetto in Italy, and a Spitzharfe in Germany. The latter is shaped like a wing and has a soundbox between two ranks of strings—the high notes on one side of the soundbox and the low notes on the other. These were played by resting the instrument on a table or a lap, plucking the melody on the high side and the accompaniment on the other.

The Classical harp was louder and capable of more virtuosic playing than the Baroque, and this is when the finesse of the new pedal harp really came into its own.

Harps continue to be popular in Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Asia. New schools of playing include French, Russian, Viennese, Attl, St. Petersburg, and others. Most of these have to do with differences in how the arms are held and how the thumb moves.

Harp Structure

By definition, the harp has all its strings on a single plane, perpendicular to the sounding board. (A lyre has them all on the same plane.)

The European harp includes the three parts of an equilateral triangle. One side of the triangle is the sounding board, held against the body, with the strings attached. The top side of the triangle (the pointy end of the triangle is as the bottom—a harp needs a stand or some sort of foot to stay upright) is called the neck, and is where the strings attach at the other end. Tuning pegs are lined up on the neck, and sometimes, it’s curved downward or angled. (Mine has a pretty swoop to it.) The third side of the triangle is called the pillar. It provides strength and contributes to the resonance. Sometimes, the pillars have a slight outward curve, which makes it easier to reach the lower strings without interference.

The double-action pedal harp (invented by Sebastien Erard in the late 18th century) has two pegged disks on the neck below the tuning pegs that put a kink in the strings. If the pedal is depressed halfway, the string is sharped by a half-step (from a white key to its neighboring black key on the piano) and if the pedal is fully depressed, the string is sharped by a whole step (from one white to the next when there is an intervening black key on the piano). All strings that sound that particular note through all of the octaves are affected the same way. The pedals can be fixed to put the instrument into a particular key or they can be temporarily fixed by treading on the pedal. This invention made the harp suitable for symphonic and opera orchestras. (Erard also received patents for improvements to the piano, which was his primary interest.)

The ability to play arpeggios (small step-wise leaps across several notes upward or downward) and chords (multiple notes played all at once) were not the only reasons that musicians found the harp appealing. The overtones and harmonics created by the vibrations to neighboring strings add a certain inviting charm. Because the body of the sounding board is hollow, when the string is plucked, both the string and the sounding board resonate. As the sounding board responds, nearby strings are affected and produce a slight hum, creating harmonics and overtones that are so appealing. It’s considered to sound particularly nice with wind instruments such as flutes, trumpets, and so forth.

A fellow called G.C. Pfranger invented a chromatic harp in the 19th century which was improved by Jean Henri Pape in 1843. Pape made the strings correspond to the white and black keys of a piano by having the “white” notes on one plane and the “black” notes on another, at slight angles. The two sets cross each other about half-way down. (This is the scheme for what are called double-strung harps.) Further improvements came in the United States by a fellow called Gustave Lyon.

Modern harps are strung with wire, nylon, gut, or silk. On a small harp, the core material is the same for all lengths and thicknesses. On larger harps, string materials are mixed to attain a greater range of notes. European-style harps have C strings tinted red and F strings tinted blue or black, which is a great aid in locating specific notes in a sea of strings. Wire strings are either silver or bronze for the same reason.

Tuning pins are usually metal. The bottom end of the string is threaded through a hole in the sounding board and tied in a knot. The upper ends of the strings are threaded through a tuning pin. Like other stringed instruments, a tuning pin winds the string as it’s turned and can be adjusted to make the notes higher or lower, as needed.

Lever harps have a small lever joint near the tuning pins that sharps individual strings when it’s flipped. The harpist must take one hand off the strings to make adjustments during performances for accidentals (sharps outside those specified in the key signature) and key changes.

Some harps (like mine) have neither pedals nor sharping levers and must be played in a single key signature throughout the performance.

In Medieval and Renaissance harps, some strings had a braying pin attached to the tuning pin, which buzzed when the string was plucked. This fashion was no longer the style by the Baroque period and is seldom seen today, even in period music ensembles.

The instrument rests between the knees or on the lap of the harpist, and against their right shoulder. The Welsh triple harp and early Scottish or Irish harps are played against the left shoulder. Only the first four fingers of each hand are used. The pinky finger is considered too short, and using it distorts the shape of the hand, according to most schools of harp instruction.

Dynamics (loudness and softness) are controlled by how hard the strings are plucked. A fuller sound can be produced by plucking near the center of the string, and a more twangy, guitar-like sound by plucking near the bottom of the string. Tone is also affected by the skin on the harpist’s hands, by whether it’s oily or dry, and by the thickness of callouses.

Concert pedal harps have 47 strings (6 ½ octaves). They weigh about 80 pounds and are about 6 feet tall. The rods that effect the sharping in a pedal harp are hidden in the pillar.

The Name

The ancient instrument was also called the pectis or magadis. The latter had 20 strings, making it possible to play in octaves. The Egyptians used the Sumerian word for “bow” to name the harp although it is often called the cithara, especially in medieval documents.

The English word harp comes to us from the Old English hearpe. The German word is harfe and the Dutch word is harp.

Nations of Harps

Ireland, especially the Celts, really took to the harp. There are images dating from as early as the 9th century, including some on an elegant a reliquary and on a Carolingian manuscript. The harps in both images are based on Syrian models that are bow-shaped and have fewer than a dozen strings. Celtic harps were part of the bard tradition, which involved singing epic tales at banquets and other occasions. Fiddles were also popular among the Celts, and remain so today.

The English poem “Beowulf” has the word hearpe in it, dating from the 8th century, although they might have meant nearly any plucked instrument (like a psaltery or a lyre). But the harp was definitely in England by the 10th century. Giraldus Cambrensis (c1146-c1223) reported that the Welsh and the Scottish played the harp and psaltery, and also mentions the rote (like a psaltery and sometimes called the rotta—see Instrument Biography: Psaltery, coming soon). Chaucer’s friar enjoyed singing with a harp in “Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, and his pardoner character speaks of harps as the instruments of the devil. (Pardoners were those clerics who accepted money and other tokens in exchange for forgiveness for crimes and sins, or for relics, most of which had questionable provenance.)

German manuscripts of the 12th and 13th century include the expression cithara angelico, meaning harp of the angels. In the 14th century, Dante refers to the harps in Ireland, and Michael Praetorius (see Composer Biography: Michael Praetorius, coming soon) in Germany mentions the Irish harp in the 17th century

In France, harps are depicted with vièles, mostly as used by troubadours. The trouvères also used them, especially as music changed from being performed by aristocrats to being performed by the bourgeois. (Troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers, and minstrels are all forms of traveling musicians that were in vogue in the Middle Ages.)

Descendants

There are several less-than-traditional forms of harps. The Aeolian harp is a box with a bunch of varied-width strings all tuned to the same note. Each string, because of the differences in girth, has a different timbre. The box is placed so that the wind makes the strings sound, and the overtones become the sort of essential fairy-like sounds that we associate with the Romantic period. The Aeolian harp is probably as old as biblical times, as King David’s harp (from the Old Testament) was heard to be played by the midnight wind. St. Dunstan (d.988) was thought to have magic powers because he placed such a harp in a draft and it played all by itself. Father Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) built a modern-style Aeolian harp, and Alexander Pope introduced an Aeolian harp to England in the early 1700s. You can still buy Aeolian harps in specialty music stores today.

Latin Americans liked the Baroque harps brought from Spain and they were widely adopted in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela, and Paraguay.

African harps tend to be without a pillar and are often bowed. Chinese harps are somewhat rare today, and mostly take the form of zithers. The Kafir harp in Afghanistan may predate European harps and is still played today.

Famous Harp Players

Aristocratic women were often trained to play the harp as an “accomplishment” in Europe from Baroque times until the Victorian era, but it was also considered an instrument for professionals. The most famous include Nicholas Bochsa (harpist to Napoleon I), Elias Parish-Alvars, and Albert Zabel. Although part of a rather comical family, Harpo Marx was a fine harpist in the 20th century.

Current experts include Andrew Lawrence-King, Cheryl Ann Fulton, Sylvia Woods, Andreas Vollenweider, and more.

Jazz harpists include Casper Reardon, Dorothy Ashby, and Alice Coltrane. These names should also appear among the composers below.

Famous Harp Composers

There are relatively few composers who devote themselves to the harp, but Turlough O’Carolan (see Composer Biography: Turlough O’Carolan). Those with less of a focus, but who also admired the harp include Georges Cousineau, who, by 1782, transformed the instrument from a simple pedal harp to a double pedal harp. Piano-maker Sebastian Erard (mentioned above) solved the pedal problem by the 1810s, making a harp with 6 ½ octaves.

Handel, J. C. Bach, Mozart, Albrechtsberger, Schenck, Dussek, and Spohr were Baroque composers who used the harp. Then came Wagner, Louis Spode, Mozart, Delibes, Gounod, and Massenet in later periods. You can’t ignore the others either, such as Berlioz, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Puccini, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss.

Occasionally you’ll find a harp used in popular music, such as The Beatles 1967 album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Cher’s “Dark Lady, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” and Heatwave’s “Boogie nights.” Most often, Gayle Levant, a Los Angeles studio harpist played on these recordings.

Go ahead. Look on your shelves. You probably already own something with a harp on the CD. And if you go to Ireland, you’ll see it everywhere—on the money, on labels, in statues.

Sources:

  • “Musical Instruments; Their history in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Mill. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1949 (reprint).
  • “Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music, Eighth Edition” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010
  • “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1943
  • “A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabether Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

Written by Melanie Spiller

January 21, 2013 at 12:31 pm