The Different Parts of a Harp: The Anatomy and Structure Explained

Although you may have only seen a harp strumming out the background music in your dreams, they’re a genuine instrument that many accomplished musicians still use today. You may even want to learn the harp and wonder what the different parts of a harp might be. 

If you’re earnestly trying to learn the harp, you need to know every nook and cranny of your instrument. In this article, we’ll go over the various parts of a harp and how they interact with one another. After reading, you’ll be off to a good start on your journey of learning the harp. 

Anatomy of a Harp

Anatomy of a Harp

Harps are some of the more intricate instruments out there.

While there are several types of harps, we’ll only cover the parts of a pedal harp for the purposes of this article.

Lever harps are also popular, but they share many of the same parts, minus the pedals.

Pedal harps have four distinct sections that encompass the instrument’s smaller parts:

  • Body
  • Neck
  • Pillar
  • Foot

Below, we’ll give you an in-depth look into how the different parts work together to achieve the unique sound we all know and love. 

Body

If you consider the full harp as a triangle, the body is the longest side that sits closest to the player.

They cradle the body in their own, one hand strumming strings from the left, the other from the right. 

The harp’s body is semi-cylindrical, shaped similarly to a half-cone with straight edges.

It can be pretty wide if you’re dealing with a large harp or relatively narrow when playing smaller or portable ones.

While modern concert pedal harps are typically one meter at their widest, the total width of the body varies depending on the manufacturer. 

Harp bodies are always wood, but even that can vary as well.

Depending on their preferences, harp luthiers often use maple, birch, ash, mahogany, and others.

Each type can have noticeable effects on the instrument’s resonance, which is why you can find so much variation in the wild. 

Soundboard

The soundboard makes up the top half of the body, where the strings and suspension rod attach to the rest of the instrument.

It helps absorb pressure changes from the strings and then transfer the vibrations through the soundbox and outward towards the audience.

Harp soundboards are typically spruce, a highly resonant and lighter wood than the rest of the body.

However, it’s also the part that experiences the most damage apart from the strings because of this.

As a result, you might need to repair or replace it more frequently than other parts of a harp.

Suspension Rod

The strings directly attach to the suspension rod, molded into the soundboard at a 36-degree angle.

The suspension rod keeps the strings taut and helps transfer their vibrations down into the soundboard and out of the soundbox. 

Soundbox

The underside of the harp’s body acts as the instrument’s soundbox.

It’s relatively hollow and has five holes that project the resonating sound from the strings outward, raising their natural volume in the process.

Strings

The harp’s strings are fairly unique in the realm of classical stringed instruments.

The average harp has 47 strings.

While most other stringed instruments utilize a single type of string, harpists use at least two. 

The lowest strings attached near the base of the soundboard and body are typically steel.

This makes the hard-to-hear lower notes more resonant, increasing their volume through the soundbox. 

The rest of the strings are usually gut-strings, typical for classical stringed instruments.

However, some harpists like to replace their highest gut strings with nylon because it’s more durable.

As such, harpists can have up to three types of strings on their instruments, depending on their preferences. 

Neck

The neck is the top part of a harp and swoops up and forward like a wave or some sort of musical serpent.

It’s often the most decorated part of the instrument, featuring detailed wood carvings of various origins. 

Tuning Pegs

Located along the outer part of the neck are the harp’s tuning pins, much smaller than other stringed instruments.

You need a special wrench to tune each string to your requirements, but as a result, the harp doesn’t go out of tune as quickly as other instruments. 

Even though string size might vary, tuning pegs are all typically the same size.

They’re metal and jut outward about an inch off the average concert pedal harp.

Underneath them are the harp’s tuning discs, another vital piece of the instrument. 

Tuning Discs

Players use the various tuning discs to change the pitch of the strings, pressing the pedals at the bottom of the harp to alter the pitch as they play. 

The upper and lower discs coordinate each string’s pitch in half-measures.

When the player presses a pedal, the disc pins touch the string, shortening it and raising the pitch. 

The player presses the corresponding pedal once to move up half a tone, twice to move up another half-tone.

In other words, you can raise the pitch of each string by a full tone with two presses of a pedal. 

Shoulder

The shoulder is the curved part that connects that neck to the body and forms the top corner of the instrument.

It’s also wood but not as hollow as the body and not as ornate as the neck. 

While the shoulder might be decorated to some degree, it doesn’t serve any other purpose than to connect the two large parts of a harp.

There aren’t any strings attached to it, and there is no mechanism to manipulate the sound in any way. 

Pillar

The pillar is important for two reasons.

First, it stabilizes the instrument so that the player can hold it without toppling one way or the other.

Second, it houses the all-important rod mechanism that connects the pedals to the tuning discs and pegs. 

Crown

The crown, otherwise known as the head, is a decorated piece of wood at the top of the harp.

It connects the pillar to the neck but doesn’t serve another specific purpose.

You might find harps with intricate designs carved into the head, like a crown, or it might be plain. 

Foot

The foot is the base of the harp, keeping the instrument steady when it’s not in use.

It might also be heavily decorated, but typically isn’t because it experiences more wear and tear than the neck. 

The foot houses the pedals, and inside is an intricate mechanism of levers that allows the player to change the pitch of the strings. 

Pedals

Harps generally have seven pedals, one for each note on the diatonic scale.

Each pedal can control all the tuning discs of one pitch class, meaning one pedal changes the pitch of up to seven strings at once. 

The pedals run around the harp base, so the player has to use both feet to manipulate all of them.

The left foot handles the Cb, Db, and Bb pedals, while the right foot deals with the Eb, Fb, Gb, and Ab pedals. 

Wrapping Up Our Guide to the Harp’s Parts

Understanding its parts is the key to mastering this beautiful instrument if you’re just learning to play the harp.

Aside from playing, you need to learn how to care for your harp over the long run so that it has a long and fruitful life. 

We hope this article has illuminated the inner workings of the harp and how its different parts relate to one another.

Check out our list of the most famous harpists to get inspired by some incredibly talented people.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.