STRING INSTRUMENTS, Harps etc. Richard York
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... at least some of them...


What did they look like? ... and what evidence is there for that?

See pictures of modern re-constructions of harps.
link to bigger images of 		old pictures & carvings See images of old pictures and carvings.
If you've visited the Reeds & Bagpipes pages you know already to use the word ICONOGRAPHY here!
You're right by them!

How did they work? What were they made of?

The body, or sound box, was and still is usually of wood. Parts of it were sometimes made of bone, the tuning pegs, for example. Sometimes they would use animal skin for the sound board - the wide bit that has the strings fastened to it. Ancient Welsh harps used this.
The harp here has a pillar, as do most harps. Really early harps, like some Egyptian ones in the British Museum, had no pillar but relied on the strength of the wood not to bend too much. Obviously you couldn't pull the strings too tight!
A modern orchestra harp has about 4 tons of strain on it when all the strings are tight. That's about as much as the weight of two Landrovers.

Harps mostly had strings of gut. They were probably invented by somebody twanging the string of a hunting bow.
Gut, by the way, means just that. Guts. Not cat's guts, which some people call them, but lamb's or sheep's guts, dried in thin strips, and twisted round. It's very hard to do well.
They also have strings of wire - bronze or brass. My harps are wire strung.
The Welsh people made harps with strings of horse-tail hair. I've played one, and it sounded a bit like an African harp, with a sort of thud to each note, which I liked.

Modern harps often use nylon for strings. It stays in tune and doesn't break nearly so often. It often sounds a bit thin, though!

Who played them?

But first... Harper or Harpist?
HarpERs play medieval & celtic harps.
HarpISTS play big harps with pedals on, usually modern concert or orchestra harps. Sorted!

From very early times, from pictures and from writing, we get the idea that harps were often played by specialist harpers, and also by some rich people who had the time to work on them... and perhaps liked the idea of being seen playing a harp!
Harps are easy to make a nice noise on. They are very hard to play well.

Harpers from before 1000 years ago through to the 1400's were not just musicians, they were often important travelling story tellers. They would bring a mixture of news and traditional stories; these often seem to have been chanted with harp accompaniment. By the 1400's, this part of their job was going out of fashion, but harps were still played, especially in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. However, Henry VIII did pay 7 shillings and 6 pence to "a blynde woman being a harper."

Harpers in medieval times were a little like traditional African Praise Singers - their job was to make songs in praise of the person who was paying them.
The harper might well go with his lord into battle, so he could see what deeds were done, and sing about them. At the battle of Falkirk, in 1298, each of the great lords there had this own harper. The names are the clue: John le Harpur, John le Harper, Nicholas le Harpour and Richard le Harpour. You had to be careful, though, with your harper, because when he was away visiting other rich Lords he might sing unkind things about you if you hadn't treated him well!

There again, if the Lord was feeling ill or sad, the harper had to sooth his feelings.
One medieval poet described how the harp...
"...through skill and right
Will destroy the fiend's might" ... or the devil's strength.
And King Henry III sent a harper to play to his son Edmund while he lay ill, and to stay until he got better.

...OR SPY?
Like other travelling musicians, it seems harpers were sometimes used as spies. Who better to go round, be welcomed into halls, and gather information?

Many of the harpers were blind. It is, as I find by playing mine with my eyes closed, almost easier to play by touch than by looking. "Nicholas le Blund" - or blind - was one. "Perle in the eghe," or pearl in the eye, was another. This was a name given to people with cataracts, which make the eyes look white.

It's worth remembering that through much of medieval times, English, French, and Latin would all be used at courtly gatherings, and the harper may well have to be able to work in all three languages.
(Much of the information in this section comes from a book called "The Medieval English Minstrel" by John Southworth.)

Where did they come from?

Harps are mentioned in the Bible. You can see harps in the British Museum from Egyptian originals of over 3000 years ago. I've read that harps are first known about in 1900 B.C... that's nearly 4000 years ago... in Mesopotamia. These were the so called "Angular Harps" - the ones a bit like a bow with a sound-box but no front pillar.
By medieval times triangular shaped harps were all over Europe. The Celtic nations around Britain - Scotland, Ireland & Wales, all had their own versions.

In the 1500's and onwards the Italians and Spanish both had strong harping traditions. When Spain colonised South America, the harps went there too, and modern Paraguyan harps are very like early Spanish harps.

How do you get different notes - like the white and black notes on the keyboard?

Harps normally have one row of strings, and these often play similar notes to the ones you get by playing up the white notes of a modern keyboard. (Note to harp freaks - yes, I know lever harps are usually tuned in Eb, but let's keep it simple!)
You can easily see from the picture of my "Kinellan" clarsach on the right that there's one row of strings up the middle of the soundboard.
OK, fine, as long as you're happy just playing those notes. You can make cunning ways of tuning a few surprises in, but you're still stuck with the notes you have. Some tunes move onto different notes which aren't available like this.
Double harp So here's one solution. Here you see a modern copy of an Italian double harp, an "Arpa Doppia". You can clearly see from the black button like pegs on the soundboard it has two rows of strings.
So the cunning harp player has one row tuned to the piano keyboard white notes, and the other row to the black notes. All you have to do is reach inbetween the strings for the extra notes. Sounds simple? You should try it!
On the right you can see the two rows of tuning pegs, set on different layers of the wood. It's quite hard tuning that lot too.
rows of pegs
Bruxelles double harp Dear reader, in the cause of research, I travelled to Belgium where, in Brussells, there's a fantastic museum of instruments.
Not that I enjoyed the trip at all, you understand... the things I do just to be helpful...
On the left you see a rather wobbly picture of an early Italian double harp. I'm sorry it's a bit wobbly: I was working without flash light & trying to hold the camera still! But you can still see the two rows of pins up the middle.
On the right you can see the Spanish answer to the problem. You cross the strings over & reach a bit higher or a bit lower to play the different notes. You can see the strings crossing quite nicely on this picture. You can also see that the harp has a bigger, fatter body - producing more sound.
Bruxelles cross harp
Lynx If you want to see more pictures of harps and other instruments made by George Stevens, who made my Queen Mary clarsach, look at his website:
To see more pictures of harps made by Ardival Harps, who made my "Kinellan" clarsach in the picture above, see their website at: http://

Three useful links to find more about the Ancient Gaelic harps:

THE CLARSACH NET is a wondrous website, full of history of these beautiful creatures, and with many pictures, and a whole lot more resources besides.
Most dangerously, it even lists makers, with more pictures of instruments to drool over and want!

THE HISTORICAL HARP SOCIETY OF IRELAND promotes the playing of historical harps, particularly the Irish wire-strung harp

SCOIL AN CHLÁIRSIGH - Irish Summer School of Wire-Strung Harp is the leading international annual summer school for the historical harp of Ireland

With any of these case you can see the website then close it & return to this one without losing your place here. Haste ye back!


Coming soon to a page in front of you now...
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Psaltery pic. Here is one Pigs snout psaltery, viewed the un-pig way up.
Here it is, looking more like a pig's nose, if you have a strong imagination; this is why it's called the "porco" in Italian.
I am reliably informed by many hundreds of pupils at many schools that it looks more like a pair of underpants.
... True, but underpants were not always very fashionable in an age when clean laundry wasn't always easily available, so they'd seen more pigs than pants.
Psaltery pic.
Here is a pane of glass from Shibden Hall, near Halifax.
There are some other pictures of parts of this same window elsewhere on this site, so if you've met this explanation before skip over this bit.
During the late 1500's, glass from Churches in York, which were having their decoration smashed up following Henry VIII's Reformation, some medieval glass was rescued and put into this window at Shibden Hall.
So this picture is about 700 years old.
OK, you can stop skipping!
The picture here is of a bird sitting on what seems to be a cross between a box and a pigs snout psaltery. Whatever it was based on, it looks a lot like the instrument I have.
Shibden porco pic.
Reproduced with permission
... and here's one painted by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, in Victorian times. Though there was a great Victorian fashion for recreating medieval themes, the artists didn't always get it right! This psaltery is very pretty and quite useless. Since the strings simply stretch round the corners of the instrument and don't have anything like bridges to hold them up, all you'd get would be a dull slapping sound. Try it with a rubber band across a box and you'll have it perfectly. Though I suppose that since the painting is called "The Merciless Lady" it might just be that she's mercilessly making her man listen to the awful noise she's making and then asking "Darling, don't you just love my music?"... ?? Rossetti's psaltery pic.

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Dulcimer pic. View Dulcimer Pictures This instrument came to Europe from Arabic countries. It's still played there, with central bridges, where it is called the santur, sometimes spelt santoor. A very similar instrument in the same family has no central bridges, it is plucked, and is called the qanun. I've also seen this spelt as qanoon. Since these are Arabic words I'm not going to argue how they ought to be reproduced in English! (I'm very grateful to Pav Verity of Edinburgh for putting me right with some of the details of which instrument is which here.)

There are many more instruments in the family, in different countries, for example: Hammer Dulicimers are used a lot in some American folk music. ...And I'm hugely delighted to meet in my work people who come from these and other countries and recognise my instrument, and sometimes play it too!

My nearly-Victorian dulcimer was made by Frederick Barley in London. It was made in 1902, but it is just the same style as those made while Queen Victoria was still alive. It's the sort of instrument you might find being played on the street, in the pub, or in ordinary people's houses. You would not normally find "nobs and toffs" playing one.

Lunatic Asylum Concert proves webmaster WRONG!

... and then, dear reader, as so often happens, something crops up to show that just when you think you know something, you don't!
I'm very grateful to Mrs. Balderson of Bradford, who I met on my performing travels, and who has a dulcimer used in an 1895 concert in a lunatic asylum. She's sent me a photo of the instrument that was actually used, and copies of the programme.
It's a very pretty dulcimer, as you will see from the bigger picture, and has a lovely tortoiseshell finish. Obviously not a mere street musician's job, this!
To see the dulcimer, & the programme details, bigger but slower, click on either small picture:
Big pic Big pic
The worthy Mr. John Kirk was perfectly respectable and was playing to raise money for the asylum. Let's not get onto Victorian Lunatic Asylums here or we'll never get onto the rest of the dulcimer bits!
The only frustrating thing is that on the programme it merely says he played a "selection" which doesn't tell us which tunes he was using. Pity...
Anyway, thankyou greatly, Mrs. Balderson, for allowing me to use this material.

I also have a small dulcimer copied from medieval and Tudor period pictures. You can see it on the pictures page too.

The strings on dulcimers are in groups or courses. On my medieval dulcimer there are two to each course. On Frederick Barley's, there are 4 to each course, and each course goes over a bridge.
Where they are made this way they're called chess pieces Close Up
On some strings you get different notes by playing different sides of the chess pieces. This isn't a very good picture of some of the chess pieces on the instrument in the main picture. The really neat part about using bridges part way along the strings is that you get more notes for the same amount of strings, and so can cram more notes into less space. This lets you have a smaller box to carry about, and also means you haven't got to move your hands so far to play the different notes. Cunning!
Lynx LINKS TO FIND MORE: - a good site showing lots of other instruments too. I'm advertising the competition here! Dulcimers in arabic music

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Copyright ©: 2000, Richard York
This page last revised: Octorber 3rd, 2001
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