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What Is a Celtic Harp?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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A Celtic harp is a smaller version of the harp that is common to the Celtic countries or regions of Europe, most notably Wales, Ireland and Brittany. Also called the folk harp, the Celtic harp is also popular with revivalists, folk re-enactment actors and beginners. There are variations within folk harps that mean they range from two to six octaves, may or may not contain blades or levers and can have from 19 to 40 strings, though 34 seems to be the average. A person who plays the Celtic harp is called a Celtic harper rather than a harpist.

The harp is a stringed instrument, which holds the strings in a vertical manner within the frame. Harps are most often played in a sitting posture with the harp either on the lap, if small enough, or standing next to the harpist. These multi-stringed instruments are traditionally wedge-shaped with the strings perpendicular in relation to the soundboard. The popularity of the harp means the instrument can be found in cultures as diverse as the Celtic nations, Asia, Africa and across Europe.

Symbolically, the harp is associated with thoughtfulness and gentleness. It is also a political and corporate symbol with deep connections to Ireland. The Celtic harp has been associated with Ireland since the times of Brian Boruma mac Cennetig, known as Brian Boru in English. The harp first became an official symbol of Ireland in 1542. It is also used on the flag of Leinster, one of historic Ireland’s four provinces.

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The sound of the Celtic harp is not just associated with peace and gentility; it is also associated with romance and, to a certain extent, especially in the Celtic Diaspora, with nostalgia. The sound, however, varies depending on the size of the harp and the materials it is made from. The two main variations are the strings and the frame, specifically the soundboard. Traditional Celtic harps are strung with gut, but modern ones are now also strung with materials such as nylon or wire.

Celtic harps are often small enough to fit on the lap. These harps also have a number of other fundamental differences when compared to the usually larger and more ornate classical harps. One big feature is the lack of pedals. Celtic harps are either fixed harps or have a series of levers, which loosen or tighten the strings as needed. The advantage of the lever system is lightness and portability. The disadvantage is that it is harder to make quick key changes and harder to perform accidentals.

The Celtic harp, like most harps, is tuned diatonically. This is much the same as tuning a piano and involves tetrachord patterns with five tones and two semitones within them. The music is formed by the plucking of strings and the use of levers to change sounds.

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