In the broadest terms, “Celtic harp” refers to a type of folk harp that is also often called an “Irish harp” or a “lever harp.” The last more correctly refers to any harp which uses levers to make notes sharp and for key changes (more about that later). The term “Irish harp” in reality indicates any harp that comes from Ireland, while the term “folk harp” can refer to any non-pedal harp that is associated with a particular culture. In addition to modern Celtic harps, then, we would include instruments such as the Paraguayan harp from South America, as well as those from other regions, under the broad classification of folk harps.
The word “Celtic” is itself also a very broad term that refers to a mixture of many cultures – some of which go back thousands of years. Purists would argue that a true “Celtic” harp must be an authentic reproduction of medieval Gaelic or Welsh harps. They would expect such harps to feature the historically heavier, sturdy designs of the Celts and the use of wire, gut, or hair strings (not nylon). With that in mind, a more correct reference to the typical assortment of modern Celtic harps would be Celtic style harp.
Today’s Celtic-style harps are very popular instruments that come in a range of sizes and designs, from mini harps which are held in the lap to play and have as few as eight strings, to larger instruments that stand on four legs and have from roughly nineteen to as many as forty strings. The larger harps can be as much as five feet tall and will typically include “sharping levers” (also called “cam levers,” based on their design) for making notes sharp and changing keys. These levers are fairly simple mechanisms attached to the neck (top arm) of the harp in the path of a string. The player simply pushes a lever with a finger or thumb, which presses against a string to effectively shorten it, thereby making it play a sharp.
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Players of Celtic-style and other folk harps are most often called “harpers.” The term “harpist” generally refers to those musicians who play pedal harps, which are typically larger instruments. These classic harps use foot pedals instead of levers to change keys. An advantage to the pedal harp is that it can have as many as 47 strings and that a majority of these strings can be adjusted to natural, sharp and flat orientations. This capability greatly extends the range of keys and therefore the repertoire of music that can be performed. The pedal mechanism on these harps is rather complex, which is one reason that pedal harps are considerably more expensive than lever harps.
Pedal harps are typically associated with classical music and symphony orchestras, while lever harps usually bring to mind Celtic and other folk music performed by smaller ensembles. Both instruments are frequently seen in solo performances, as well. In addition to its lower cost, a clear advantage of the smaller lever harp is its lighter weight and easier portability. Most can be carried without great difficulty (harp carrying cases are readily available), while a pedal harp requires a specially designed harp cart or dolly, in addition to a protective cover, for transport.
As with any acoustic instrument, the sound of a Celtic-style harp will vary greatly from one instrument to another. One factor which greatly affects sound quality is the type of string used. Celtic harps were traditionally strung with wire or gut, and even hair; but they are now more often strung with nylon. Wire strings produce a sharper and louder sound than nylon, and they tend to vibrate longer. Natural gut strings, on the other hand, project a softer and more muted sound. Nylon strings are also softer sounding and quieter than metal, though generally not as rich in tone as gut. The main advantages of nylon compared to gut are that they cost less and do not break as easily. In many instances, lever harps are strung with a combination of nylon monofilament, nylon wound, and metal wound (nylon core) strings. Individual preference and type of music will generally dictate the choice of harp strings.
Other factors which affect sound quality include the harp’s actual design, soundboard material (spruce is generally a preferred wood) and the overall quality of construction. Keep in mind that a poorly designed and constructed instrument will not likely achieve a high quality sound, regardless of the materials used. For this reason, it is important to take into account the construction methods as well as materials when considering the purchase of a Celtic-style harp. Of course, cost also plays a role. Regardless of brand, a $500 to $1000 folk harp cannot be expected to compare with one that costs several thousand dollars. In many cases, however, a less expensive harp will meet a player’s expectations and perform very well. A lower priced harp also makes an excellent choice for beginning harpers as well as for anyone who wants to add another harp to their collection.