pedal harp

Also:       concert harp      grand concert harp      harpe      Harfe      arpa      

Title: The World of the Harp—La Mandoline, by Alvars; Susann McDonald, pedal harp. Label: Delos. Format: CD. Catalogue#: D/CD 3005. Track: 15.

Contextual Associations

The modern concert pedal harp is a plucked frame-harp chordophone originating in Europe. It has a complex, and largely invisible, ‘double action’ mechanism developed in the early 19th century that allows an otherwise diatonic (seven pitches/strings to the octave) instrument to be a fully chromatic one. Most of the harp's solo and chamber music literature postdates the development of this elaborate mechanical system. In the latter half of the 19th century, composers began to incorporate the harp into their orchestral compositions with greater regularity, although it had already been used in opera orchestras much earlier. Playing the harp can be an amateur pursuit for some individuals, but because of the cost of the instrument and the high level of skill needed to play it well, it is most frequently heard in the hands of professionals. Therefore, the performance of the harp’s solo and chamber literature is today most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include in their faculty a professor of harp and offer degrees in harp performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. A few professional harpists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. Many professional harpists seek positions both in orchestras and in tertiary educational institutions as studio instructors; they, and aspiring professionals, also freelance as soloists providing music for weddings, receptions, and other such events.


The basic structural components of the pedal harp string carrier are: a resonator; a sturdy (but hollow) support pillar; a round pedal box; and a curved neck. The bases of both the resonator and the pillar are joined to the top of the pedal box, and the neck is joined at one end to the crown of the pillar and at its other end to the top end of the resonator. The resonator, shaped like an elongated teardrop sliced in half, has a rounded hardwood back and a soundboard made from thinly-shaven Sitka spruce. The soundboard is strengthened with thin strips of wood that run down its center from top to bottom on both its exterior and interior faces. Five oval-shaped sound holes are cut into the back of the resonator to allow access to the resonator interior, making stringing of the instrument possible. The pillar is made of hard maple and is hollowed out so that seven brass pedal rods can pass through it. The neck has two parts: its top is a double-curved solid wood unit the ends of which are joined securely to the pillar crown and the top end of the resonator--47 metal friction tuning pins pass through it from side-to-side; and two brass plates attached to and extending downward from the wood neck and housing the mechanical tuning action that is operated from the foot pedals. These pedals are mounted in three-position slots in the side wall of the pedal box, and raising and lowing the position of any one or these pedals moves its pedal rod, which is attached to the interior end of the pedal, up and down inside the pillar. This movement actuates the action located in the neck of the harp. The 47 single-course strings for the concert pedal harp vary in thickness (from 0.11 inch for the lowest string to 0.02 for the highest), design (the bottom twelve strings are wire wound, the rest not), and material (metal for the bass register, gut for the middle register, and nylon for the upper register). The bottom end of each string passes through metal-eyelet framed holes drilled through the soundboard and its reinforcing strips. Inside the resonator they are tied to end sticks made of short lengths of string; these sticks prevent the string from passing back through the soundboard. The plane of the strings is perpendicular to that of the soundboard. At their other end, each string is bent against a metal bridge-pin before being threaded through and wound around the exposed end of a tuning pin on the neck. The basic vibrational length of a string runs from its point of contact with the soundboard to the point of contact with its bridge pin; on this instrument, the string vibrational lengths range from 61 inches for the lowest string to 2.9 inches for the highest.  The vibrational length of a string (except for the two lowest-pitched strings on the instrument) can be shortened in two incremental steps, each step raising the pitch of the string a semitone. These changes are accomplished with the seven 3-position foot-operated pedals, each linked, via an internal system of levers, rods, springs, mechanical actions, and axles, to pairs of rotating metal discs with pins (called ‘forks’) located on one of the neck side-panels that can simultaneously raise all the strings tuned to one of the diatonic scale degrees by one or two semitones. The detail image provides a close-up look at the results of bringing various combinations of these discs into action. The top end of each string is wrapped around a tuning peg (the top row of pegs imbedded in the wood frame), but it is the row of bridge-pins (mounted on the brass plate) that determines the end of the vibrating segment of each string (note that, for the first two strings at the far left, there is no further way to alter their acoustical length). We can see that, beginning with the third string from the left, each string is outfitted with two rotating discs. The pedals for the first two of these have been positioned so that both discs for these two strings (and all their octave counterparts) have been engaged. This shortens the full length of the string by two increments and raises its pitch by two semitones. The next two strings to the right (the fifth and sixth from the left) have their pedals positioned so that only the top discs are in play, thus shortening the length of the full string by one increment and raising its pitch by one semitone. Finally, the next three strings (the seventh, eighth and ninth from the left) have their respective pedals positioned so that neither of their discs is activated, leaving them to vibrate at their full length. After this point, the above-described pattern for the third through ninth strings repeats itself again and again throughout the rest of the instrument's range.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The harp is played by a seated performer, the instrument’s pedal box touching the floor and the resonator passing between the player’s legs with the top back of the resonator resting on the player’s left shoulder. The performer uses both feet to operate the pedals, three of which are manipulated with the left foot, the other four with the right foot. 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. Its 47 strings are tuned diatonically and cover a range of six-and-one-half octaves from C1 - G7 with the pedals all in their middle position (the topmost string produces a G-sharp7 when its pedal is in its lowest position). The strings tuned to C are dyed red and those tuned to F are black, which visually assists the performer in keeping oriented while playing. The player plucks the strings to produce melodies or chords, or strums over segments of the string plane to produce the characteristic sweeping effect called a ‘glissando.’ Harmonics can be produced, but differently with each hand. Left-hand harmonics are produced by placing the left palm halfway down the length of one or more string and then plucking the string segment above the palm with the thumb and/or fingers. For the right hand, the player must place the first knuckle of the right index finger at the halfway point of a string and pluck its upper segment with their thumb. The sound of plucked strings in the middle and lower registers of the harp sustain for several seconds so it is occasionally necessary for the player to dampen these strings with their palms. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the pedal harp.


A major stepping stone in the evolution of the harp from a diatonic instrument, such as the gothic harp, to a chromatic one was the development by German makers of the single-action pedal harp around 1720. Paris became a center of harp making and performance in the latter half of the 18th century. There the box to house pedals was added, and the rods connecting pedals to the action on the side of the neck were located inside the hollowed out forepillar. Each of an instrument’s seven pedals controlled all the strings tuned to one scale degree; by depressing a pedal all the strings tuned to its pitch would mechanically be raised a semitone. The Frenchman Sébastien Erard is credited with two further important design innovations: in 1792 he invented the ‘fork’ system (see above); and in 1810 he patented the double-action harp on which each string tuned to a particular pitch could be raised either a semitone or a whole tone by depressing a multi-position pedal. Relatively minor changes to the harp’s mechanics and design have taken place since, perhaps the most important one being the enclosing of the action between brass plates on the sides of the neck.

Bibliographic Citations

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

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

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)

322.222 chordophone--frame harp with pedal tuning action: the harp has a pillar; the tuning can be altered by pedals

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: harp - frame

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: soundboard to tension stub

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: two or three (with use of optional tension stub/s)


74 in. height 22 in. greatest width of resonator

Primary Materials

string - synthetic
string - wire-wound synthetic


Lyon & Healy


85 CG

Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Jeannie Chenette