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Harp Terminology

Due to some recent confusion we have received, this column will discuss the nomenclature and clarifications of two topics: Electric harp vs. amplified harp and double strung vs. chromatic or cross strung harp.

I have had people inquiring about an electric harp when by my terminology they are referring to an acoustic harp which is amplified.

An electric harp is one where each string has a pickup to convert the vibration energy of a string into an electrical impulse. This signal is then sent to an amplifier to reproduce and amplify the sound. The signal is sent from each string as it is struck. Many truly electric harps have a solid body, that is there is no soundboard or sound box but only the pickup on each string which then needs to be amplified.  Without being amplified the sound is hardly audible. The amplified sound is that of individual strings and not the whole harp assembly. Some harp makers, Harps and Harps included, do make acoustic/electric harps which in addition to being a fully acoustic harp with soundboard and sound box, additionally have individual pickups on each string so that it can be played either acoustically only or combined electrically.

What I find is that many people using the term electric harp in reality are referring to an acoustic harp which has a pickup or several pickups installed somewhere on the soundboard or sound box which can then be used to amplify the harp.  These pickups sense the overall vibration of the harp and then this signal can be sent to an amplifier in order to amplify the harp.

I will admit that this confusion is perpetuated by some harp makers who do refer to their acoustic harps with a pick up as being an electric harp, however, in the true sense they are amplified harps not electric harps.  Think of the difference between an electric guitar and an amplified acoustic guitar.

Another area of occasional confusion is that of the terminology of a contemporary double strung harp vs. a contemporary chromatic or cross strung harp.  Although they both have two courses of strings the similarity stops there.

A double strung harp is basically two conventional diatonic harps side by side on one frame and sound box. The double strung harp usually has two identically tuned diatonic parallel rows of strings and usually two full sets of sharping levers.  The two rows can be tuned differently from each other if needed. It is like playing two harps at once.

A contemporary chromatic or often called cross stung harp has two crossing rows of strings.  To relate it to a piano, one course of strings is the white keys and the other crossing course is they black keys. The advantage is that all notes are available at all times, and the strings are “open” for a clear sound, no levers or pedal mechanisms are required. This type of harp is played basically on the diatonic (white keys) course of strings near the crossing point. Then with left hand one reaches up for the sharps and flats (black keys) or reaches down with the right hand to get the sharps and flats.

These nomenclatures are referring to contemporary harps as in early days there were a number of variations on these two types of harps. A note on chromatic harps is that in addition to the two courses cross strung harp there are also triple strung harps.  The triple strung harp has three parallel rows of strings with the two out rows being the diatonic (white keys) much like a double string harp and then a third inner row which is the equivalent of the black keys.  The player reaches through the outer strings to get to the inner sharps and flats.

Questions and comments for future “Harp Workbench” columns of this newsletter can be addressed.