What is a Harp?

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  • Written By: D Frank
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
  • Last Modified Date: 22 October 2019
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A harp is a plucked string musical instrument that is usually triangular in shape. Another characteristic of a harp is the way the strings relate to the soundboard (the hole) in the body of the harp. While guitars and violins have strings that run parallel to the soundboard, harp strings always run perpendicular to the soundboard.

A search through history indicates that harps became popular in Egypt as far back as 1500 BC and may have been present in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) as far back as 2500 BC Harps are beautiful instruments to the eye and often remind viewers of the instruments angels allegedly like to play in heaven. Harps normally stand between two and six feet (60 to 180 cm) in height and have between 22 and 47 strings. Some smaller harps can rest in a player's lap, but most models stand on the floor. Many people refer to the modern day harmonica as the "blues harp." Though normally available in acoustic form, electric harps are also available.

Orchestras throughout the world include harps as one of their musical instruments. Harpists can be found playing solo at wedding receptions and such similar events, and the electric harp has found it's way onto the stage with assorted rock and blues bands.


The harp is played by moving the fingers across the strings to create various sounds. When the strings are strummed or plucked, the music created can range from somber tunes that elicit melancholy feelings to racy melodies that bring about inspiration. Many harps also have foot pedals the harpist uses much like a pianist to offer an even wider range of sounds.

French harpist Alfonse Hasslemans, who lived from 1845-1912, is often credited with bringing about a harp revival at the turn of the 20th century. Harpo Marx, the mute brother of the famed comedy group--the Marx Brothers, made many viewers laugh at the silly antics he displayed in the old, black and white Marx Brothers movies. Harpo was also an accomplished harpist who almost always found a point in a movie to play the harp. Harpo also played before various heads of state in Russia and England. Though deceased for many years, Harpo Marx is still the world's most recognized harpist.


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