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What Is Classical Harp?

Judith Smith Sullivan
Judith Smith Sullivan

Classical harp, or the orchestra harp, is the largest instrument in the harp family. It has 47 strings, which make up six and a half octaves or musical scales and is played with both hands — the left hand plucking the lower strings and the right hand plucking the higher strings. It is typically a solo instrument, but sometimes it is found in an orchestral setting. It can play both melody lines and chords, like a piano or guitar, which gives it great versatility.

The construction of a classical harp is complex and results in a very delicate instrument. The strings themselves are attached to a curved bar, which is supported by the base of the instrument. It is shaped somewhat like a triangle with one corner resting on the ground. In order to help the harpist navigate the strings, each C is a red string and each F is a black string.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

One side of the triangle is pulled back against the harpist's body while playing, so the entire instrument leans against the musician. A harpist always plays while sitting down, and the harp rests in between his or her legs, leaning against the right shoulder.

The sound box, or resonation chamber, is built into the side of the harp that rests against the harpist. Without the sound box, the harp would not be loud enough to carry over an orchestra. It is common for the sound box to be decorated with carvings or other decorations, purely for aesthetic purposes.

Classical harps are tuned to the key of C flat. This means that the harpist can only play the notes found in that key. To overcome this problem, pedals are used to universally raise the pitch of the strings up to two half steps.

Half steps are the smallest musical division in a musical key. The ability to raise the pitch one or two half steps allows the harpist to play in any key. There are seven pedals on a classical harp, one for each of the seven notes in a musical scale. Each pedal changes the pitch of all the strings of that specific note.

Strings can also be individually tuned with the tuning pegs. Tuning pegs require a special tool to turn them. Like any stringed instrument, the classical harp can go out of tune due to humidity or undue pressure on the strings. Harpists must check the tuning of their harp regularly to ensure the best sound. Although it is technically possible for the harpist to retune for a completely different key, this would be very time consuming.

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      Man playing a guitar