While many variations have been created over the years, modern performers typically choose from three specific types of harps. The pedal harp is the instrument commonly used in orchestral music, and is best able to play pieces containing sharp and flat notes. On the other hand, the lever harp is a simpler instrument widely recommended to beginners. Portable lap harps are similar in design to lever harps; in fact, many lap harps do include levers in their design. Most harps are strung with nylon or gut, but wire strung harps offer a different tone.
The major distinction between the different types of harps comes down to their ability to play sharp and flat notes. The earliest harps were able to play only natural notes, with no flats or sharps. If a song called for a sharp note, the harpist would have to tune the harp string, making the note sharp. In order to return to a natural note, the harp string would require tuning again. Levers and pedals offer the performer the ability to change quickly from natural to flat or sharp while playing.
Pedal harps are most adept at making this change. Seven pedals are located at the harp’s base, one for each note, A through G. Each pedal has three positions: natural, sharp, and flat. If the harpist moves the A pedal to the sharp position, all of the harp’s A strings play A sharp. Of the three types of harps, the pedal harp is the most versatile, but it is also very heavy, with complex internal mechanisms, making it the least portable and most expensive as well.
Lever harps rely on levers along the instrument’s neck to change the tone. Flicking levers up and down will change a note from natural to sharp or flat. Moving these levers requires the use of the left hand, and playing without disruption can be tricky if frequent switches are required. Compared with pedal harps, these are much lighter and more affordable, making them the recommended choice for novices.
Lap harps are much smaller than other types of harps, usually with fewer strings than harps which rest on the floor to be played. Some lap harps actually small lever harps, while others have no mechanism for changing tone. Typically, these are less expensive than other types of harps, and are well suited to impromptu sessions and get togethers. Despite their smaller size, lap harps may require an instrument strap or a lap board to play comfortably.
Irish wire harps are strung with metal wire, usually brass, instead of nylon or gut. This gives them a completely different sound from other types of harps. Tension on the wires is high, and levers cannot be used without breaking the strings. Instead, paddle shaped blades are used to change the string’s tone.