The non-pedal harp is commonly known as the folk, or lever, harp. It is smaller than (and pre-dates) the pedal harp (both in size and weight), and is made in both floor and lap sizes, with a range of strings from as little as 19 up to 36 or more. Although not exclusively so, the folk harp is usually used to play more traditional, as opposed to classical/concerti music, either solo or in small groups or ensembles. Without the addition of levers, the folk harp cannot play sharps and flats unless re-tuned.
Although harps have been around for over 5,000 years, the form of what has come to be the modern folk/lever harp came into being during the Middle Ages, probably sometime during the 9th century.
The use of levers to change the pitch of the strings was developed sometime in the 16th or 17th century, predating the pedal harp by about 100 years. Early levers were called “hooks”, but the function was the same. While the folk harp does not have to utilize levers, it is a handy alternative to manually re-tuning the harp to play material in different keys.
With the growing popularity of pedal harps, the folk harp slowly fell out of favor, the once-highly acclaimed harpers devolving to itinerant musicians. In the 1960s and 1970s, Alan Stivell, a Breton musician, rediscovered early Celtic harp music and was largely responsible for the revival of the folk harp and it’s re-introduction to mainstream culture.
There are a variety of folk harps:
- “Celtic harp: This term is catch-all phrase for wire, gut, and nylon strung non-pedal (lever/folk) harps that grew out of the Celtic tradition. Because many people use ‘Celtic’ synonymously with ‘Irish’, it is also sometimes used more specifically to refer to only wire-strung harps (Irish harps).
- Folk harp: Most often used as a general term to refer to gut or nylon strung lever harps, which are more common than wire-strung harps today. As the Irish harp is also a folk harp, the difference is often made clear by saying more specifically, “Irish folk harp”.
- Wire-strung harp: strung with brass and bronze strings, most synonymous with ‘Irish harp’ today
- Double-strung harp: a variation of folk harp, most often nylon-strung, with 2 parallel rows of strings. The second row of strings is attached on the other side of the harp.”
- Triple harp: [definition needed]
Folk harps are triangular in shape, consisting of a sound-box, pillar, and neck. The sound-box is usually hollow, with openings to the rear; different than a wire-strung harp, which has sound openings on the front (sound-board) of the harp. Folk harps range in size from small harps that fit on the lap to larger harps that sit on a stool or the floor. The number of strings tends to increase as the harp gets larger.
“The folk or lever harp ranges in size from two octaves to six octaves, and may use levers or blades to change pitch. The most common size has 34 strings: Two octaves below middle C and two and a half above (ending on A), although folk or lever harps can usually be found with anywhere from 19 to 40 strings. The strings are generally made of nylon, gut, carbon fiber or fluorocarbon, or wrapped metal, and are plucked with the fingers using a similar technique to the pedal harp.”
The strings on the harp correspond roughly to the white keys of the piano. Unlike pedal harps (or pianos with their black keys), folk harps do not have a built-in mechanism to change pitch. Sharping levers, sometimes called “sharping blades”, can be installed on some or all of the strings to change the pitch from a natural to a flat (or vice versa). “Blades and hooks perform almost the same function as levers, but use a different mechanism. The most common type of lever is either the Camac or Truitt lever although Loveland levers are still used by some makers. ”
Like the pedal harp , the folk harp is played with the fingertips (pads). The fingers are held in a relaxed, curved position, with the thumb raised upright. By applying pressure on the strings and releasing them, sound is produced.
“Folk harps with levers installed have a lever close to the top of each string; when it is engaged, it shortens the string so its pitch is raised a semitone, resulting in a sharped note if the string was a natural, or a natural note if the string was a flat. Lever harps are often tuned to the key C or E-flat. Using the E-flat scheme, the major keys of E-flat, B-flat, F, C, G, D, A, and E can be reached by changing lever positions, rather than re-tuning any strings. Many smaller folk harps are tuned in C or F, and may have no levers, or levers on the F and C strings only, allowing a narrower range of keys. “ Harps that have no levers and are tuned to C can simulate a G-major scale by tuning all the Fs to F-flat.
Note about this article. Some of this content has been copy-pasted from Peggy Coates' website dorveille.com The website has disappeared, but the content remains on the internet archives. Attempts have been made to get in touch with the original author, but have been unfruitful. Should Peggy come across this content, please get in touch with @harpwiki!