So the post in which I promised to do a fantasy writer's guide to the harp is ... still not back up yet, but I'm going to do it. This will be three posts, the other two to show up over the next few days, breaking down some information I hope writers can take and use in their fiction. First up is the physical characteristics of the instruments, then a basic "how to play" orientation, and finally, misconceptions and other cool harp information.
Minstrels, court musicians and bards – if your fantasy character plays a harp, they probably play the traditional harp (otherwise known as the folk or Celtic style harp), an instrument that’s been around in some form or another since ancient Sumeria. The modern pedal harp (“the big tall thing with the gold pillar” as I describe it in technical terms) is a much later invention – possibly appropriate for later period and Victorian settings, but outside of this discussion.
For a traveling musician, a traditional harp is the only way to go due to size and weight. Pedal harps have to be larger and heavier to incorporate the mechanical aspects of the pedals. Even at that, traditional harps aren’t necessarily small: my harp (an Aberdeen Meadows from William Rees Instruments) is almost five feet tall. The Aberdeen has what is known nowadays as concert spacing (because I have big hands!), so floor harps can and do run smaller, but it’s not typically going to be something your character can just toss over their back. Lap harps, on the other hand, are made for this kind of portability.
I hope I don’t have to explain floor harp versus lap harp, but just in the case – the former rests on the floor and is played from a chair, and the latter either rests in the lap or sets up on a stool.
The three main parts of the harp are the soundboard, which rests against the body while playing; the pillar, which is the vertical support on the outside of the instrument; and the neck, which runs between them and serves as a support for the strings, bridge pins and levers. The strings are made of four materials: wire, gut or nylon, or carbon fiber. I separate these out because wire harps are a different beast from gut or nylon, and carbon fiber is a newer experiment. Let’s assume that in most fantasy settings, you probably wouldn’t have nylon strings, but the sound from gut strings is essentially the same.
For the past few centuries, traditional harps have had levers, mechanisms that allow the pitch of an individual string to be adjusted a half-step, functioning like the black keys on the piano. For instance, it will turn your F into an F sharp. The lever only has two positions: up or down. If you’re not a musician, you can skip the next paragraph. Just understand that levers don’t mean you can play anything. Traditional music is generally fine (and not just Celtic – I’ve played a Korean piece), but classic / orchestral music may be problematic.
Sharps and flats on the harp: if you want a flat, you tune the string down to the flat (for instance, Bb), and then when the lever is engaged, you get the natural (B). This means that traditional harps have a limited number of practical keys. My harp is tuned to Eb Major, which means I have the option of 3 flats (E, A, B) and four sharps (C, D, F, G). Each lever also controls only the actual string it is placed above. That means if you want to change keys from G to D, you have to flip every single C on the instrument. (This differs from the pedal harp, where the pedal engages every note.)
Levers can be flipped during play, but it’s difficult to do. Your accompaniment hand has to come off the instrument and all the way up to the neck to flip the lever.
Without levers, every time you want to change keys, you have to stop and retune the instrument. Just personally, while historically, levers were only developed a short while before pedals, I consider that the portability of a lever instrument and the technical know-how required to construct levers means that there’s no compelling reason for a fantasy society not to have them. But … musicians played for centuries without them.
None of this applies to wire harps. Wire harps do not use levers. (Difference #1 – count ‘em!)