The eternal problem of the harp, one which persists to this day, is its essential diatonic nature.  The simple, small diatonic harps of the early renaissance were perfectly sufficient for their role in the music of that time.  These harps, familiar to us from medieval art, would typically have possessed only 20 strings or fewer.  Each string would have been secured by an L-shaped pin, which, touching the string ever so slightly, produced a characteristic buzzing sound from which these “bray pins” take their name, due to the sound’s resemblance to the braying of a donkey.  These harps were typically used to accompany monophonic instruments or vocal music.  They were incapable of modulation, and would have to be re-tuned to suit each individual piece played.  By the late renaissance, as the chromatic demands of new music increased, harp makers began to seek out ways to expand the chromatic ability and sounding range of the instrument. Some examples of early renaissance “chromatic” harps include the Italian arpa doppia, possessing two parallel courses of strings and the Spanish arpa de dos órdenes, similar in concept.  By the 1600s, the arpa doppia had evolved a third course of strings, the two outer courses both tuned to the diatonic scale and the central course tuned to the intermediary chromatic pitches.  This type of harp was widely popular in the late Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods and is even featured in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, and was the ancestor of the folk harps played still today in Wales.1


While certainly more flexible chromatically than simple diatonic harps, the multi-course harps came with their own problems.  The finger-work necessary to access the chromatic strings was quite difficult, the multiple courses of strings were visually disorienting, and the sheer number of strings required considerable expense and labour to maintain.  By the early 18th century, harpists and luthiers began to experiment with simpler methods of producing semitones.  Harp makers in Southern Germany and Tyrol began to fit metal hooks to the necks of otherwise diatonic harps, which, when rotated manually, raised the pitch of the string by a semitone (in a similar manner to today’s lever harps).  This allowed the harpist to play in a small range of keys without re-tuning the string, but was far from ideal, as the left hand was not free to play while operating the “hooks” (see Figure 1).

Figure 1-An Austrian hook harp, 18th century, in the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum, New York City

Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque harps

A Brief History of European Harps