The Harp and all its variants is an instrument with an interesting history and worthy of a little consideration. One of the first things you will notice is the various forms in which it exists. So, answering the question, “How many strings does a harp have?” is not that straightforward.
- Where Did It Come From?
- Europe In The Renaissance
- The Harp Evolving
- Seven Pedals
- The Composers
- The Structure
- From Crossbar to Sounding Board
- What Determines Pitch?
- The Column
- The Strings
- A Unique Instrument
- 47 Strings, 47 Pitches
- What Are Harp Strings Made Of?
- Gut Strings
- Nylon Strings
- Carbon Strings
- Wire Or Metal
- A Range Of Tones
- Types of the Harp
- Are Harps Expensive?
- Interested in the Harp or Other Stringed Instruments?
- How Many Strings Does a Harp Have – Final Thoughts
Where Did It Come From?
The exact origins of the harp are hard to identify, but they certainly extend back to at least 3000 BC. In and around this time, they were found in Asia, Africa, and Europe, so they have existed in their basic forms for centuries.
Europe In The Renaissance
As we came to the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the Renaissance Period, it was Europe where it retained its popularity. And it was here that the instrument evolved into a range of like instruments.
And as some of the European nations became colonial, the instrument traveled with them. By this time, the harp and its varying designs became less popular in Asian and Near Eastern countries, although they are still used in Myanmar (Burma).
The Harp Evolving
Some of the harps that we see today playing with orchestras in concert halls are technically advanced instruments. One of the great advances has been the development of pedals. These are foot-controlled and are designed to alter the pitch of the strings.
This makes the harp fully chromatic. The advantage of that is that it extends the repertoire of the instrument to include classical pieces.
The Concert Harp has seven pedals. Each will alter the tone of the strings by one pitch. On the left side, the pedals are D, C, and B. On the right side, they are E, F, G, and A.
These developments, first in 1697 by Jakob Hochbrucher and later by Sebastian Erard in 1811, effectively made the harp a serious classical instrument.
Whilst the development arrived during the periods of both Mozart and Beethoven; the harp didn’t seem to play a significant role. The orchestral works of the masters didn’t pay much attention. It is true that both Mozart and then Beethoven did use it in their works, but sparingly.
It wasn’t until Cesar Franck and his Symphony in D minor in 1888 that it finally drew attention. At the time, this was a work described as ‘revolutionary’ despite other works that already included it.
It has found various ‘homes’ in a range of styles. Still used classically, of course, it became an iconic instrument in the hands of ‘Harpo’ Marx in the late 1920s.
But perhaps its most surprising appearance was on The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album. Its inclusion on the track “She’s Leaving Home” has a profound effect on the feel of the song.
Modern musicians have used the harp…
Bjork has used harpist Zeena Parkins on several tracks. And Andreas Vollenweider, a Swiss harpist, gave the instrument a whole new audience via his jazz/new age albums.
We can see then, despite its antiquity, the harp plays an important role in a variety of genres.
Having looked at the history of the harp, let’s just consider how it is made and what materials are used. As we can see, this is no ordinary instrument. An appreciation of the construction of the harp will be useful when answering, “how many strings does a harp have?”
The side view is that familiar-looking triangle that is constructed mainly of excellent quality wood. On the top of the harp is the crossbar, or neck, which is where the strings are secured. Each string will have its own tuning peg for adjusting the pitch.
From Crossbar to Sounding Board
Taken from the crossbar, the string then travels down. It is secured to the resonating body, the sounding board, by a knot. The wooden hole that the string passes through is given some protection from wear by an eyelet.
The body of the harp is hollow. When a string that is tightened is plucked, the sound is resonated through the body of the harp. This projects the sound.
What Determines Pitch?
The pitch of each harp string is determined by three things:
- Distance between the sounding board and the peg on the crossbar.
- Tension applied to the string.
- Weight of the string.
This is the longest side of the harp and is also sometimes called the pillar. There are some smaller harps and early harps that do not contain a column. The purpose of the column is to support the neck because of the tremendous pressure and strain that is created by the strings.
On a Concert or Modern Harp, the total tension created by the strings is just under 1,000 kilos. That is nearly a ton. You can therefore appreciate the need for the column and the support and strength it gives.
Harp strings were traditionally made from gut, as they were for most early string instruments. They then progressed to wire. Today strings are still made from both materials, but these days you can also get nylon and metal.
Let’s move on to being a little bit more specific now and talk about the Concert Harp and its strings.
A Unique Instrument
This is a beautiful sounding and unique instrument in all its guises. The Concert or modern harp, sometimes also called a ‘pedal’ harp, has 47 strings. But, of course, that is not the only type of harp you will come across. You can get harps with only 7 or 8 strings.
You could say that there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ harp in terms of its size. We will be taking a brief look at some of the other different kinds of harp soon.
47 Strings, 47 Pitches
Each of the 47 strings on a Concert Harp has its own pitch. They can all be raised or lowered by a half note by using the seven pedals. This allows the harpist to create flat or sharp notes.
The 47 strings all have different lengths to create different pitches. They are tuned in the same way that we tune the white keys, or ‘natural’ notes, on a piano. This effectively means there are no ‘black’ piano keys on a harp. Hence the necessity for the pedals to give you the sharps and flats.
The longer the string then, the lower the pitch. Obviously, the shorter strings produce the higher pitches. Let’s move on to looking at the strings.
What Are Harp Strings Made Of?
We have already mentioned it briefly, but they are made from a range of materials these days. And they all have their strengths and weaknesses. It is not uncommon to find harpists using different types of string in different areas of the harp for a specific effect.
There are four main materials for making harp strings. Let’s have a closer look at them.
Often referred to as ‘catgut’ but nothing to do with cats at all. Although, they are made from the intestines of animals. This is a material that makes great strings for responsive performance. They are also favored by many pros on Violins and similar string instruments.
You will find it often used in Concert Harps. They produce a great sound, but there are a few downsides:
- Prone to break more often.
- Will not stand ‘over-tensioning.’
- Very sensitive to humidity, so frequent tuning is required.
There are two types of harp gut strings:
- Concert Gut – Usually found on pedal harps. These are very firm strings to the touch, so you need strong fingers and hands to use them. They produce a very warm tone.
- Lever Gut – Also sounds very good, but it is lighter and softer than Concert gut. Being easier on the fingers, it is many harpists’ choice.
We all know about the value of nylon strings in classical and acoustic guitars. They have positives and negatives, of course.
Being made of a synthetic material, they are not as sensitive as gut strings to humidity. Therefore, they are unlikely to break often. However, the downside is that the sound is not as rich and warm as gut.
There are two kinds of nylon harp strings:
- Monofilament Nylon – More resistant to humidity, produces clear and quite warm sounds.
- Nylon-Wrapped Monofilament – Similar, but has an extra wrapped coating of more nylon.
You might think the wrapped is better. They sound good but are not so good with humidity, and they can lose their tuning easily.
Produced with the combination of several different polymers. These tend to be long-wearing but, again, without the sound qualities of gut strings. They do, however, produce a brighter sound than nylon.
Wire Or Metal
These strings can be made out of a variety of metals, including bronze, silver, gold, or steel. Because of the different molecular structures of each, they all sound slightly different.
Steel is often the favorite because they have quite a good sound. They are strong and don’t break too often. Bronze, on the other hand, because of its structure, does tend to break more often than most.
A Range Of Tones
The strings on the harp usually have tones from C1 to G7. Some of those are often colored to let the harpist see which to strum or pluck. You will often find all the C strings are given the color red. The F strings are usually colored black.
The 47-string harp has three definable registers. These are High, Middle, and Low. You will find that harpists tend to prefer different strings for each register depending on the string’s strengths.
The shortest strings on the harp, as we have already seen, harpists often prefer nylon strings here.
As with many instruments, the mid-frequency range generates a lot of what might be called the basic sound. The foundation, if you like, of everything going on around it in other registers.
Gut strings are perfect here for playing chords and arpeggios, as well as creating the overall warmth of the sound of the harp.
You will find steel strings are the order of the day here. Not only is the brightness good for resonance and projecting the lower notes, but they can also withstand the extreme tensioning.
We have already said that these are the longest strings on the harp. You, therefore, need some natural strength from them.
Types of the Harp
As I have already mentioned, there are plenty of different varieties of the harp. They can be grouped by the number of strings they have. You will hear people talk of the standard harp having 47 strings. But that is just the Concert or Modern harp.
Also known as the Pedal harp, it is the only type of harp with pedals. Usually, 47 strings, as we have seen. But on occasion, you will find one with 46. Let’s take a quick look at the others so we can better answer the question, “How many strings does a harp have?”
The next nearest to the 47 strings of the Concert harp is the Electric harp. The number of strings on these harps can vary. You can find electric harps with anything between 40 and 47 strings.
These are solid-body instruments and are electrically powered. The concert harp is hollow-bodied, which creates the sound. It is similar in its framework design to the concert harp.
An interesting design difference here. They will be found with 46 strings inside the frame. That is only one less string than the concert. The difference is, though, that this harp has multiple rows of strings, not just one row. You will find them with both double and triple rows.
If you have a harp with two rows, there will be 23 strings on one side, and the other side will have 23. The pitch will be the same on the strings opposite each other.
This harp is so-called because of the levers that are built-in to its frame. There are 34 strings on a Lever harp, and each string has a lever. The levers allow the harpist to play two different notes on each string.
This is a complicated procedure. The harpist will use both hands to work the levers. There is an extra skill involved here in learning to play strings while adjusting the levers. Not the easiest of actions to perform.
This is a traditional instrument that has a few different variations. You may find a Celtic harp with anything from 22 to 38 strings. Usually, though, they come in at 30. Because of the differences in the design of this harp, you can get anything from two to six octaves.
This has ancient connotations, even in its name. You would have seen this harp, or lyre as it is sometimes called, back in ancient Greek and Roman times.
When it was originally developed, it only had four strings. But as time went by, more strings were added. It went from four to eight and then to ten. Today, the maximum number you will find is sixteen.
It might not stretch the imagination to work out where the name came from with this harp. It is also a harp with a long history, and we can trace its use back to the 9th and 19th centuries. Today it is still designed to be played seated using your lap as its rest platform.
Are Harps Expensive?
The one thing about harps we haven’t looked at yet is the cost. These instruments can get a bit expensive at the top end. Buying a top-of-the-range Concert harp might cost you up to $200,000.
Why Are They So Expensive?
Most of the serious instruments are handmade using the finest materials. Add on to that the problem that there are so few master harp builders around. That is a recipe for an expensive instrument.
There are less expensive options, of course, and I am looking at the very top-end. I have included some at the end of this article that are considerably cheaper. But from a manufacturing perspective, not only are the top harps great instruments, but they are also works of art.
The price point, though, will also depend on what sort of harp you choose and will be based on how many strings it has. Let’s take a look at a few:
- Roosebeck Heather Harp with Full Chelby Levers – Vine Engraved
- Donner DLH-003 Lyre Harp, 16 Metal Strings
- CGI 36″ Large 22 Strings Harp Solid Engraved Wood Celtic Irish rose Harp
- Royal 27 Inch Tall Celtic Irish Knee Harp 17 Strings Solid Wood
Interested in the Harp or Other Stringed Instruments?
We can help with that. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Hammered Dulcimers, the Best Mountain Dulcimers, and the Best Mandolins you can buy in 2023.
You may also enjoy our handy articles on What is Considered a String Instrument, Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of, What’s the Difference Between a Cello and Double Bass, and The Romantic Period of Music for more useful musical information.
How Many Strings Does a Harp Have – Final Thoughts
We have come a long way looking at the harp. Asking how many settings a harp has will depend on the harp, as we have seen. The top Concert, Modern, or Pedal harps all have 47 strings. The other types have a varying number depending on what they are.
But they are all great instruments, of that there is no doubt.
So, until next time, let your music play.