neo-Gothic harp

Title: The Enchanted Isles: Harp Music of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales--Lord Mayo, by David Murphy; Carol Thompson, harp. Label: Dorian. Format: CD. Catalogue#: DOR-90120. Track: 6.

Contextual Associations

The neo-Gothic harp is a plucked frame-harp chordophone of European origin. In the 21st century, the neo-Gothic lever-harp is reconstructed both physically and ideally as a late-medieval period instrument. While retaining certain cultural indices of its privileged history--hardly any pantomimed angel is devoid of a harp--it has come to be successfully employed across musical genres: folk (especially Celtic), classical, jazz, popular and country music. Like many others of its species, this particular instrument was purchased by an institution (Grinnell College) for specific pedagogical ends and serves as a concert harp in the performance of early, Celtic, and classical music.


This floor-harp with levers has 29 strings arranged in a single plain within a solid wooden frame consisting of three components: a pyramidal-shaped hollow resonator; a solid neck with a peaked finial; and a solid pillar. The resonator comprises three panels of cherry wood and a fourth, trapezoidal-shaped, slightly bowed, thin board of a different variety of wood that serves as the soundtable. Very thin and narrow strips of wood run down the center of both faces the soundboard; together they function as the string holder, which has 29 holes drilled in it to accept one end of each string. The rear panel of the resonator has three oval sound/string access holes (see first detail image). On the neck three pieces of hardware are installed for each string (see detail #2): a friction tuning peg of metal, which passes through the neck; a nearby short metal post; and a plastic lever. The pillar connects the base of the resonator to the end of the neck, thereby closing and adding strength to the frame over which the strings are stretched. Each nylon string passed through a hole in the resonator string holder and is secured with a knot against the inside face of the soundboard. Before being wound around a tuning peg on the neck, each string passes through a lever mechanism and against a pin. The basic tension/tuning of each string is accomplished with a tuning key on the reverse side of the neck. The vibrating length of each string is between the metal post and the string holder. Each string's vibrating length can be shortened enough to raise its pitch a half step by engaging the lever mechanism.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

In the modern performance convention, the harp is tipped backwards into a seated player’s lap. The player plucks the strings with his/her thumbs and first three fingertips of both hands, one operating on each side of the plain of strings. Tuned diatonically and spanning four octaves from G2 – G6, a few of the strings are dyed blue or red to assist the performer by visually marking key scale degrees. This harp is relatively quiet instrument. I can be played as a solo instrument or in an ensemble.


Our primary source for frame-harp documentation is Christian iconography, which provides us with no evidence of such harps in Western Europe until around the 8th century CE on stone depictions in Scotland. After the 12th century, frame-harps (those with a forepillar) are virtually the only type shown. The oldest extant European frame-harp dates to the 14th century (see Gothic harp). By this period, the form that Stony End (the maker of the harp pictured here) emulated was well on its way to developing pointed neck finials and higher neck-to-shank (shoulder) joining. In 1962, Lyon and Healy Harps in Chicago introduced their ‘Troubadour harp’, of ‘neo-Gothic’ shape, on which every string could be raised a semitone (and lowered back again) by means of a notched lever. With the use of these L-shaped levers, a player could now adjust pitches away from diatonic tuning either before or (with practice) during a performance.

Bibliographic Citations

Erbes, Roslyn Rensch. 1972. " The Development of the Medieval Harp: A Re-Examination of the Evidence of the Utrecht Psalter and Its Progeny," Gesta 11/2: 27-36. Article Stable URL:

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

Kastner, Alfred. 1908-1909. "The Harp," In Proceedings of the Musical Association (35th Sess.): 1-14. Article Stable URL:

Montagu, Jeremy. "harp," In The Oxford Companion to MusicOxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 6, 2012:


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

322.221 chordophone--frame harp with manual tuning action: the harp has a pillar; the strings can be shortened by hand-levers

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 tension stub

String tension control: friction pin

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

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


49.5 in. high 23.5 in. wide 35 in. height of resonator 42.5 in. vibrating length of longest string 4.8 in. vibrating length of shortest string

Primary Materials

string - synthetic


Stony End, Redwing MN

Entry Author

Gaelyn Hutchinson