Gothic harp

Also:       harpe      Harfe      arpa      

Title: A Song for Francesca: Music in Italy, 1330-1430; Andrew Lawrence-King, medieval harp. Label: Hyperion. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDA66286. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

This frame harp chordophone is a replica of 15th century European gothic (or ‘Renaissance’) harps. Its maker was inspired by the representations of harps found in paintings by Hans Memling, a Northern European artist active in the second half of the 15th century. Idiomatic solo works for the harp dating from before the 16th century are basically non-existent, in large part because the instrument was part of an aurally-transmitted tradition. This harp is today meant primarily for use in ensembles specializing in the performance of Medieval and Renaissance repertoires. Members of such groups arrange music for this instrument. In the iconography of Medieval and Renaissance Europe, harps such as the one pictured here are frequently seen in the hands of angels. Depictions of King David dating from this period often show him playing similar forms of harps.


The wood frame of this instrument is made in three integrally-connected sections: a hollow resonator, a solid neck, and a solid post. The long, slightly tapering rectangular resonator box is made from several slats of wood glued together. A thinly-shaved board of softwood is used for the resonator soundboard. The backboard of the resonator has one small soundhole drilled in it about an inch in diameter. Twenty-four L-shaped wood pegs called brays (see detail image), against which the vibrating strings strike to produce a soft buzzing, are inserted into holes drilled in a line down the middle of the soundboard. To the bottom end of the resonator one end of a slightly arched solid-wood post is joined, and to the top end of the resonator a more curvaceous solid-wood neck is joined. The other ends of these two components, the post and the neck, are then joined securely to one another to complete a very solid three-sided frame that serves as the harp’s string carrier. The neck section, with its distinctive decorative peak, includes a row of metal friction tuning pins passing through it, one for each of the instrument’s 24 single-course gut and synthetic strings. The bottom end of each string is held by tension against the inside face of the soundboard with the aid of a short ‘end stick’ tied to the end of the string. When inserted through a bray hole, the stick, which is longer than the hole is wide, contacts the inside face of the soundboard to create resistance when the string is tensioned. The top end of each string is threaded through and wound around the exposed end of one of the tuning pins; the other end of the tuning pin, located on the other side of the neck, can be turned with a tuning key to adjust the string tension. The vibrational lengths of the strings--the distance between where they make contact with the soundboard and the tuning pins--range from 32 to 6.5 inches on this instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

Typically played by a seated performer, the bottom of the instrument, where the resonator and post are joined, rests on the player’s lap and the top back of the resonator rests on the player’s left shoulder. The plane of the strings is roughly vertical with the shortest strings nearest to the performer, the longest ones furthest away. The strings are plucked with the fingertips of both hands, the right hand positioned on the right side of the string plane, the left hand on the left side. The harp is typically tuned to a diatonic scale covering a range of three octaves and a third; in the case of this harp, it is tuned to a C major scale with the lowest pitch being F2 and the highest A5. The nylon strings tuned to C are red and those tuned to F are black, which visually assists the performer in keeping oriented while playing. In the context of early music ensembles the instrument is used variously to play melodies or provide a rearticulated drone. Trained harpists can also play polyphonic music on this instrument, although as mentioned above there is no extant literature specifically created for this instrument.


Frame harps can be argued, on grounds of iconographic evidence, to have a history in Europe that dates back to ancient Greece. However, diatonic frame harps similar to the one pictured and discussed here date back only to 15th and 16th century western and northern Europe. The design of this harp overlaps historically with a number of changes that 16th-century makers were creating in attempts to develop a chromatic harp; these include the designing of harps with two and three rows/planes of strings, and the introduction of hooks that could be used to temporarily shorten the length, and therefore raise by a semitone the pitch, of some strings. Another two centuries of design evolution would take place before the modern pedal harp came into existence. More recently, as part of a folk harp revival dating from the 1960s, diatonic harps similar in design to the gothic harp began to be made by many talented makers. The most significant way these ‘neo-gothic’ harps differ from the gothic harp is that each string is outfitted with a manually operated notched lever that when engaged raises the pitch of a string by a semitone (see neo-gothic harp).

Bibliographic Citations

Griffiths, Ann, et al. 1984. "Harp," NGDMI v.2: 133-152.

Rensch, Roslyn. 2007. Harps and Harpists. Revised edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

322.21 chordophone--frame harp without tuning action: the harp has a pillar

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: harp - frame

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: soundboard to tuning pin

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: one


37.6 in. height 5.5 in. greatest width of resonator

Primary Materials

string - synthetic

Entry Author

Roger Vetter