Countless people have asked me about the instrument I play – how it works, how big it is, what the little switches are at the top. So I thought I’d write a post to answer some of the common questions I receive.
In the US, there are two main types of harps people play: the classical harp (or pedal harp) and the Celtic harp (also called the lever harp or folk harp). There are many kinds of harps, but those are the two most common categories.
The classical/pedal harp is a harp used in orchestras. It tends to be big and loud, and is characterized by the foot pedals it has at the bottom. The Celtic harp, or lever harp, is usually smaller and does not have foot pedals. Instead, it has little levers at the top of each string. Pedals and levers both have the same purpose: to change the pitches of the strings.
Each string produces a certain pitch depending on the tension of the string. Just like a rubber band changes pitch the more/less you stretch it, so harp strings change pitch if you use pedals or levers to change the strings’ tension.
Quick summary: the levers and pedals on Celtic and classical harps are there to change the tension/pitches of the strings.
Here I will elaborate a little more on the differences between levers and pedals. In music, each note is named with a letter (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). If a note has a sharp (#) or a flat (b) next to it, that implies a pitch that is halfway between two letters. So instead of saying F 1/2, you say F-sharp (F#). The levers and pedals are what allows the harpist to have those in-between pitches. On a classical harp, a simple press of a pedal will change every F to an F-sharp. On a Celtic harp, there is one lever per string, so that means the harpist has to flip the lever on each F string to change it to F-sharp.
The simple pedal mechanisms on a classical harp make it easier to play more complicated classical music. The more complicated levers on a Celtic harp tend to encourage the playing of simpler, more folk-type songs.
I have yet to learn how to play a classical harp, although I probably should someday. But right now I’m quite content playing my little Celtic harp.