The Harp’s Origins
No one really knows where the harp originated, though there are wonderful legends around harps origins. Some stories talk about a man walking down a beach, attracted to the ethereal and calming sounds created by the wind blowing through a whale skeleton…or a turtle shell. In any case, and we will never know what that calming harp music sounded like in the pre-historical era.
We can look back and see early harp-like instruments on rock paintings dating back to 15,000 BC in France. And many believe that the earliest harps came from the sound of the hunter’s bow. Without any evidence to support my claim, I’d like to believe that calming harp music came first. Then when climate change reduced the food supply, so crafty harpist figured out how to use the harp for hunting. But that’s just me.
Tall Harps in Egypt
In Egypt, some of the earliest images of bow harps are from the Pharaoh’s tombs dating some 5,000 years ago. These hieroglyphs show that there were many harps in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses III (1198-1166 BC) had many bow harps painted in his tomb. In the New Kingdom, harps measured up to 2 metres (6.5 feet) in height with 19 strings and were played seated or standing up.
Creating Calming Music was Popular in Ancient Times
Harps were very popular in ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia. One of the earliest illustrations of a harp was on a vase found in a Babylonian temple. These harps were angled harps with 12 to 15 strings and similar to the bowed instruments played in Egypt about the same time. The angle harp represents the next step in history towards the modern harp. The angle harp differs from what we call the harp today in that it lacked the front-piece, column or pillar. It was played “upside down” from its present playing orientation, with the tuning pegs on the bottom.
Harps today fall into several categories – Pedal, Paraguayan, and Lever/Celtic. I play mostly lever harps because of their price and weight. I also occasionally play Paraguayan harps because I love the tone and the super light weigh. No matter which harp you choose, you’ll be making calming harp music in no time. Check out my video below where I show you my various harps.
In this video, I introduce you to four of my harps and how they differ from each other: