The harp is the next orchestral instrument in my "Baltimore Rhapsody" quilt (click here to find out more about the project). It is one of the most ancient stringed instruments - pictures on vases show that it was used in the ancient courts of Babylon four to five thousand years ago.
There is a harp in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art that is over 2500 years old. It was found in an Egyptian tomb and looks as though it could still be played.
Harps were used in both Ancient Greece and Rome. In Ireland and Wales, it is the national instrument. A well-tuned harp was one of the three necessities for a Welshman in his home (the other two things were a virtuous wife and a cushion for the best chair).
The beautiful, unusual shape of the instrument is due to having to accommodate strings of different lengths. The most primitive harp would be several strings tied to a hunting bow.
As the harp got bigger, the strings were attached to two separate pieces of wood, with the lower piece also serving as a sounding board to amplify the sound. A third piece of wood, the pillar, connects the other two. In the modern harp, the pillar serves as a sort of pipe that connects the pedals at the base to the mechanism that changes the length of the strings, thus changing the pitch of the strings.
Until 1810, harps had no way to change the pitch of a string, so they could only play music in one key, With the modern pedals, a harpist can play just about anything.
The person playing the harp tilts the instrument until it rests on the right shoulder. The strings are played with both hands (one on each side of the strings) and eight fingers/thumbs (the pinkie fingers aren't used).
The modern harp has 47 strings and seven pedals. The strings are colored so that the harpist can orient themselves - all the C strings are red, all the F strings are blue. With the pedals, the strings can be set to play either chords or scales.
Notes are played in rapid succession (a glissando) where the strings vibrate until dampened or plucked to produce short notes/chords.
The harp can accompany other instruments, be featured as a solo instrument, or add beautiful flourishes to orchestral music. As a piano player, I have always wanted to try and play the harp - I think it has the most beautiful sound.