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The Harp

Harps used in Celtic music, known as Gaelic or Celtic harps, are considerably smaller than their better-known orchestral cousins. In matters of lineage, the modern Celtic harp is descended from a triangular frame, wire-strung harp invented circa the eleventh century. This predecessor, named cláirseach in Irish and clàrsach in Scots Gaelic, featured a sturdy, heavy frame capable of delivering a big sound and holding up to the stresses of wire strings.

Blessed with an abundance of aliases, the Celtic harp is also known as the Irish harp, cruit, lever harp, and folk harp. The name lever harp comes from the levers that the harper employs to shorten the strings and change keys. (Contrast that to the classical harp, in which the player changes keys using foot pedals.)

Playing technique and styles can vary depending on the instrument and the harper. Some harp players use their fingernails on the strings, the more traditional method, while some prefer to use the pads of the fingers.

The harp is the national symbol of Ireland, and the specific harp pictured on Ireland's coinage (as well as on bottles of Guinness stout) is the Brian Boru Harp, a fifteenth-century instrument made of oak and willow with brass strings. This ornately carved wooden harp is on permanent display in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, where the illuminated manuscript Book of Kells also resides.

The present-day Celtic harp has a compact frame, and is strung with wire or nylon (to be more accurate, a blend of nylon monofilament, wound nylon, and wound metal). The wire-strung Celtic harp has made a strong comeback in recent years, especially among traditionalists who prefer its sharp, loud, resonant, bell-like sound to the more subdued sound of a nylon-strung harp.

Because of advances in technology and materials, frames no longer have to be big and bulky to deliver full-sized sonority and resonance. Whether you prefer wire or nylon strings, you can get a harp with a light, compact frame, in sizes all the way down to an ultra-portable model that fits comfortably in your lap. These lap models could be the right choice for a child who wants to learn the harp.