How Harp Is Played

The harp is a musical instrument that has been around for centuries. It is known for its soothing sound, which has made it popular in various genres of music. It is a unique instrument, and its sound is produced by plucking the strings with fingers or picks.

In this blog post, we will discuss how harp is played, including the different techniques and styles used by harpists.

How harp is played

The harp is a stringed musical instrument that has been around for centuries. The modern harp is derived from the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian harps, which were played by plucking the strings with fingers. The harp has evolved over time, and now it is a complex instrument that requires skill and dedication to play. It is made up of a curved neck, a resonator, and strings that are tuned to different pitches.

Hand Position

The proper hand position is essential for playing the harp. The left hand should be placed on the lower strings, while the right hand should be on the higher strings. Fingers should be curved and relaxed, maintaining a natural shape.


Plucking the strings is the primary technique for playing the harp. Fingers should move in a smooth, fluid motion. To create a clear, ringing tone, pull the string towards the palm before releasing it.

  • Thumb: Pluck with the side of the thumb, slightly downwards.
  • Index, middle, and ring fingers: Pluck upwards, towards the palm.
  • Pinky: It’s typically not used on pedal or large lever harps, but can be used on smaller folk harps.


Glissando is a sweeping motion across several strings, creating a cascading sound. To perform a glissando, follow these steps:

  1. Position your hand horizontally, with relaxed fingers.
  2. Use your index finger or thumb to sweep across the strings.
  3. Keep your wrist and arm relaxed and move smoothly across the strings.


Harmonics produce a high, bell-like tone by dividing the string into equal parts. This technique involves using one hand to lightly touch the string at a node (where the string is divided by an integer) and the other hand to pluck it.

LeftLightly touch the string at the halfway point (node).
RightPluck the string as usual, with the left hand still touching the node.

Practice these techniques to build muscle memory and become a skilled harpist.

Different Types of Harps

There are several types of harps, and each has its unique playing style. Here are some of the most common types of harps:

Pedal Harp

The pedal harp is the most common type of harp used today. It is a large instrument that stands about six feet tall and has seven pedals that control the pitch of the strings. The pedal harp has a range of about six octaves, and it is used in classical music, orchestras, and solo performances.

Lever Harp

The lever harp, also known as the Celtic harp, is a smaller harp that has levers on the neck that can change the pitch of the strings. The lever harp has a range of about three to four octaves, and it is used in folk music, Celtic music, and other genres.

Electric Harp

The electric harp is a modern type of harp that uses electronic amplification to produce a sound. It has a range of about five octaves, and it is used in jazz, rock, and other genres.

Playing Techniques

Playing the harp requires skill and dedication. It takes time to learn the different techniques and styles used by harpists. Here are some of the most common playing techniques used by harpists:


Plucking is the most basic technique used in playing the harp. It involves using the fingers or picks to pluck the strings, producing a sound. The harpist can pluck the strings with their fingertips or use picks made of plastic or nylon.


A glissando is a technique used to produce a sliding sound. It involves running the fingers along the strings to create a continuous sound. The glissando is commonly used in classical music, and it is a popular technique used by harpists.


The tremolo is a technique used to produce a rapid, repeating sound. It involves plucking the strings quickly and repeatedly, creating a trembling effect. The tremolo is commonly used in classical music, and it is a challenging technique to master.


An arpeggio is a technique used to play the notes of a chord in a rapid sequence. It involves playing the notes of the chord one after the other, creating a flowing sound. The arpeggio is commonly used in classical music, and it is a popular technique used by harpists.

Playing Styles

Harpists use different playing styles to produce different sounds and styles of music. Here are some of the most common playing styles used by harpists:

Classical Style

The classical style is a traditional style of playing the harp that involves playing classical music from different eras. It involves using different techniques, such as glissando and arpeggio, to produce a flowing and melodious sound style. The classical style is popular in orchestral settings and solo performances.

Celtic Style

The Celtic style is a traditional style of playing the harp that involves playing music from the Celtic region. It involves using the lever harp to produce a simple and melodic sound. The Celtic style is popular in folk music and other traditional music genres.

Jazz Style

The jazz style is a modern style of playing the harp that involves using the electric harp to produce a jazz sound. It involves using different playing techniques, such as plucking and tremolo, to produce a rhythmic and jazzy sound. The jazz style is popular in jazz music and other modern genres.

Anatomy of the Harp

The harp is a beautiful and complex musical instrument with a unique design that contributes to its distinct sound. In this section, we will explore the key components of the harp, including the soundboard, strings, pillar, and neck.


The soundboard is the large, flat piece of wood at the base of the harp. Its primary function is to amplify the vibrations produced by the strings. The soundboard typically has a unique, curved shape designed to enhance the resonance of the harp’s sound.


The strings of a harp are its most essential element. They are made from different materials, such as gut, nylon, or steel, and are attached to the soundboard at one end and the neck at the other.

  • Gut strings: These are made from the processed intestines of sheep or cows and produce a warm, rich tone.
  • Nylon strings: These synthetic strings produce a clear, bright sound and are more resistant to changes in temperature and humidity.
  • Steel strings: Mostly found on electric harps, steel strings have a brighter, more focused sound quality.


The harp’s pillar serves as the primary support structure for the instrument, connecting the neck and the soundboard. This vertical component is typically crafted from hardwood to provide the necessary strength and stability. In addition to its structural function, the pillar may also feature intricate carvings, adding an aesthetic touch to the harp.


Finally, the harp’s neck is the horizontal part of the instrument that holds the tuning pegs, to which the strings are attached. It is responsible for distributing the tension generated by the strings, making it crucial to the harp’s structural integrity. The neck’s shape and length can vary depending on the size and specific design of the harp.

Tuning and Maintenance

Proper tuning and maintenance of a harp is crucial in ensuring optimal sound quality and the longevity of the instrument. Regular tuning sessions help maintain string tension and preserve the harp’s structure.

To tune a harp, a chromatic tuner or tuning app is commonly used. Each string should be accurately adjusted by turning the tuning pegs or levers found at the top of the harp. The order of tuning generally starts from the bass strings and moves towards the treble strings, this way:

  • C strings (red) – tune to natural
  • F strings (blue or black) – tune to natural
  • Other strings – tune to the corresponding notes on your tuner

When it comes to maintenance, it is important to periodically check the harp for any structural issues, such as loose screws, cracks, or warping wood. The strings should be inspected for wear and tear as well, and replaced as needed. Additionally, the following practices can help preserve the harp:

  • Keep it in a stable environment with moderate temperature and humidity to prevent wood damage.
  • Avoid exposing the harp to direct sunlight for extended periods, as it may cause wood to fade or crack.
  • Regularly clean the harp’s surface using a soft cloth to remove dust and dirt.
  • Ensure the harp is stored or displayed on a sturdy harp stand or leaning securely against a solid surface to minimize potential falls or accidents.

By dedicating time to proper tuning and maintenance, harp players can ensure their instrument remains in optimal condition and continues to produce beautiful, harmonious music.

Resources and Materials

Finding the right resources and materials will help you progress in your learning:

Harp Method BooksComprehensive books designed to help you learn the techniques and fundamentals of playing the harp.
Sheet MusicWide variety of harp sheet music, from classical to contemporary, to practice your skills and expand your repertoire.
Online CommunitiesForums and social media groups where harpists can share advice, tips, and support with each other.


how harp is played
  • Maintaining proper posture while playing the harp is essential to prevent injury and produce a clear and resonant sound. Make sure to sit up straight, with both feet flat on the floor, and the harp resting comfortably against your shoulder.
  • Proper hand placement is critical when playing the harp. It’s essential to place your hands correctly on the strings to produce a clear and accurate sound. The fingers should be arched and positioned perpendicular to the strings.
  • Practicing scales is an excellent way to build finger dexterity and accuracy. Start with simple scales and gradually increase the difficulty level as your skills improve.
  • Using a metronome can help you develop a sense of rhythm and timing. It’s essential to practice with a metronome regularly to improve your timing and accuracy.
  • Practicing different playing techniques, such as glissando, tremolo, and arpeggio, can help you develop your skills and expand your playing repertoire.
  • Listening to other harpists can help you develop your playing style and inspire you to try new techniques and styles.
  • Playing with other musicians can be an excellent way to develop your skills and improve your playing ability. Join a harp ensemble or orchestra to gain experience playing with others.
  • Experimenting with different playing styles, such as classical, Celtic, and jazz, can help you develop your playing style and expand your repertoire.
  • Taking lessons from an experienced harpist can be an excellent way to improve your playing skills and receive constructive feedback on your playing style and technique.
  • Lastly, practicing regularly is the most important tip for becoming a skilled harpist. Set aside time each day to practice and focus on improving your skills and expanding your repertoire. With practice and dedication, you can become a skilled and accomplished harpist.


How do you hold a harp?

A: You hold the harp upright and rest it on your right shoulder. Your left hand is used to play the strings, and your right hand is used to control the pedals.

How many strings does a harp have?

A: Harps can have different numbers of strings depending on the type and style of the harp. A standard pedal harp has 47 strings, while a lever harp can have between 22 and 38 strings.

Do you need to read sheet music to play the harp?

A: Yes, reading sheet music is essential for playing the harp. Harp sheet music uses a unique system of notation that indicates which strings to pluck and which pedals to adjust.

Can you play different styles of music on the harp?

A: Yes, the harp can be used to play many different styles of music, including classical, folk, Celtic, and jazz.

How often do you need to tune a harp?

A: Harps need to be tuned regularly, ideally before each practice or performance. The frequency of tuning will depend on the type and quality of the harp, as well as the environmental conditions in which it is played.


In conclusion, playing the harp is a complex and challenging task that requires skill and dedication. Harpists use different techniques and styles to produce different sounds and styles of music. The harp is a unique and versatile instrument that has been used in various genres of music for centuries. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced harpist, there’s always something new to learn when playing the harp.

Also read: How Harp Strings Are Made

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