You’ve probably seen harps in orchestras - huge string instruments that produce angelic melodies. Harps are one of the most ancient instruments and their music transcends time and musicians. It’s also considered an elegant and regal instrument, whose strings are plucked by the finest of musicians. But where did this instrument come from?
The earliest evidence of the harp can be traced back to Ancient Egypt circa 2500 BC. These harps were shaped like bows or they were angular. They also had very few strings which was largely due to the fact that they lacked a column and, hence, could not support much string tension.
It wasn’t until the late 16th century (or early 17th century) that triple-strung harps first appeared in Italy. This was shortly after the double-strung harp, which had two rows of strings strategically tuned for use in two-handed playing, was invented. The triple-strung harp had three rows of strings, which the two outer rows tuned to the same diatonic scale while the inner row was tuned to the outer rows’ chromatic semitones.
This reaped two major benefits in that tunes with more rapidly repeated notes could be more easily played and that the doubled rows of the same notes increased the resonance of the harp.
After many modifications to the harp, a double-action pedal harp was patented in 1810. This harp had the seven pedals that could be depressed twice and each string passed through two pronged discs instead of just one. Whenever a pedal depressed into the first notch, the upper disc turned partially and firmly held the string so that it sharpened a semitone while the bottom disc turned partially while not touching the string. To sharpen another semitone, the pedal was depressed again into a lower notch and the bottom disc turned further to grip the string even more.
Apart from other slight tweaks, this system is still used to this day.