The harp is one of the oldest instruments known, and some form of it can be seen in almost every civilization in the world. (If the TV show Star Trek is right, it can even be found on other planets!) These harps come in all shapes and sizes, from the African kora to the Irish clarsach, and are played a number of different ways. But the harp seen in symphony orchestras, also known as the “pedal” or “concert” harp, only dates back to the 19th century.
The earliest examples of harps that survive today date back to Mesopotamia, around 2500 B.C. They begin being depicted in Western art around the eighth century A.D., and since the harp was especially associated with King David in the Bible many of these depictions show David playing it. These instruments were much smaller than the modern harp, and seem to have had brass or metal strings. Throughout the Renaissance and baroque period the instrument gradually grew in size and number of strings. But it still had a problem: because of the way it was constructed, there was no way the player could change the pitch of the strings in the middle of a piece, which greatly limited its use.

Beginning in the 16th century, attempts were made to remedy this by adding chromatically-tuned strings or adding a second, or even a third, row of strings. Those with three rows of strings, called triple harps, became especially popular in the early 17th century. It was primarily used for accompaniment, but a number of compostitions were written especially for it as well. After 1650, metal hooks were introduced to help change the string pitch, but this proved inconvenient since the player had to use one hand to retune the string while the other hand played. In the early 18th century, a “single-action pedal harp” was invented, possibly by the Bavarian Jakob Hochbrucker, which allowed the pitch to be changed through a group of five foot pedals. Harp maker Sebastien Erard, who had a firm in London, improved this around 1792 by using a “fork” mechanism to keep the strings in place while their pitch was being changed.

It was also Erard who came up with what we know as the “double-action” harp, which he patented in 1810. Tuned in the key of C-flat, it had 43 strings and seven foot pedals which can be adjusted in three different positions to make the string sharp, flat or neutral. The position of the pedals can be changed very quickly, sometimes several at a time. Although the modern concert harp now usually has 46 or 47 strings, its basic mechanism is unchanged since Erard’s day. The strings, which are usually of nylon, are color-coded to help the player find pitches more easily. And the player’s hand technique, which uses all the fingers to pluck the strings except the little finger, is also the same.

The modern concert harp is capable of a number of special effects such as the glissando, where the player sweeps his/her hands up and down the strings; etouffe (stopping), where the hand quickly damps the note being played; and harmonics, where the player produces an overtone on a string by lightly touching it with their finger. A number of other special effects have been developed in this century, many of them created by Spanish virtuoso Carlos Salzedo.

Although the harp was often seen in private homes, where it was considered especially appropriate for young ladies to learn, and in opera orchestras, it did not become a regular part of a symphony orchestra until composer Hector Berlioz used it in his Symphonie fantastique (1830). Since then, in addition to its widespread use in orchestral music, a great deal of chamber and solo music had been written for it as well. Most major symphony orchestras have two harpists on their rosters. It also continues to be an important instrument in folk and world music, and many early music groups include reproductions of older types of harps in their arsenal of instruments.