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The History of the Harp

A stone angel playing the harp

Raise your hand if you've seen the following:

  • A painting of a heavenly angel, playing the harp
  • The harp logo on a can of Guinness beer
  • A drawing of a harp on a school logo, sport team's jersey or a country's coat-of-arms

All of these are prevalent. And I'm betting that at least one or two of these examples is recognizable. Why is there so much enthusiasm around harps? Let's explore.

History of the Harp

The harp is a string instrument, in which the string is perpendicular to the soundboard. It's popular across the world. Harps are played in Africa, Asia, Europe and the U.S. People who play the harp are called "harpists." The oldest known harp dates back to 3500 BCE, when it was played in ancient Mesopotamia.

Archaeologists have discovered harps in burial pits across ancient Persia and Egypt. The oldest depicted harps were arched, and didn't have a forepillar. The "modern harp," which features a forepillar and has a vertical, angled shape, became popular around 2,000 years ago. By 200 BCE -- around the same time harps were beginning to change form -- the tradition of playing the harp had spread to southern India, where the Tamil literature began to describe the prevalence of harps in the common culture. The Burmese are also thought to have started playing the harp around this time.

Fast-forward 900 years: By the 9th century, the harp had not only spread to Europe, but it had also evolved. A structural element called the "pillar" was added to the harp, and documented in both Scottish and French writing. Harps remained popular throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Italy and Spain.

Classical composers, including Mozart, Handel and Dussek, incorporated harps into their works. Harps are also used across a wide swath of Latin America (albeit scarcely), from Mexico down to Paraguay. Mauritania, and other parts of Western Africa, have also developed their own rendition of the harp.

Modern Harps

Classic composers aren't the only musicians who make use of the harp. The Beatles feature a harp prominently in the popular song "She's Leaving Home," which was featured on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The singer Cher featured a harp in her song "Dark Lady," and even alternative artist Bjork features a harp (both acoustic and electrical) in her music.

Harps also retain a strong space within modern popular culture. Most notably, the Irish stout beer Guinness features a harp in it's logo, which is emblazoned on every beer can and pint glass.

But the biggest modern association with harps is an image of angels or heaven, which is derived from a passage in the King James Version of the Bible that says: "And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps." (Revelations 14:2)

Get a Harpist for Hire

Harps remain a popular classical musical instrument. They bring a feeling of elegance and sophistication to any event, ranging from a corporate lunch on to a romantic wedding.

Request a quote from Blue Sky Atlanta Music & Entertainment if you're interested in having a harp player for wedding to perform at your wedding reception or party.

Image courtesy Flickr.