Types of Harps: Pedal and Lever
When diving into the world of harps, one of the first confusing concepts that appears is that there are different types of harps in the harp family, and while they are played in nearly the same way, the mechanism that allows you to play in different keys is extremely different.
The Pedal Harp
The pedal harp, which can range from 40 to 47 strings, is the biggest type of harp and the one you would see in an orchestra.
As you can see in the above picture, there are pedals at the bottom of the harp, operated by the feet while playing. There are seven pedals, each corresponding to one note: A, B, E, D, E, F, and G. The actual order of the pedals from left to right is: D, C, B on the left side and E, F, G, A on the right. These pedals connect to a rod that goes up the column of the harp, which then connects to a series of mechanisms hidden inside the top of the harp to change the pitch of each string of that name on the whole harp. This complex mechanism is one reason why pedal harps are significantly more expensive than lever harps.
Each pedal has three slots: flat, natural, and sharp. So if my C pedal is in the sharp slot, every C string on the instrument will now play a C sharp. By tuning with all the pedals up in C flat major, we can then rearrange the pedals to play in any key.
The Lever Harp
The lever harp, also called folk harps or celtic harps, are usually smaller than pedal harps, and come in a range of sizes. They can also be made to have a more celtic or more classical sound.
These harps can have no levers, a few levers, or a lever on every single string, along the top of the harp. These levers can be set before playing, or changed by the left hand while playing. This can require some space in the left hand of an arrangement to leave time for a lever change. Each lever can raise its string by one semitone; for this reason, lever harps can play in fewer keys than a pedal harp, but for a fully levered harp, it can be tuned in E flat major with the levers down, and then by arranging the levers can be played in the most common keys from three flats to four sharps without re-tuning the harp.
Which harp is right for you?
If you are just starting out or are interested in playing the harp, a lever harp will probably be sufficient and much more accessible for you. If you have been playing for a long time and are interested in more advanced repertoire you may be interested in moving to pedal harp, or if you want to study harp at university you will need to play pedal harp. That said, lots of professional harpists make their living on lever harps and a lever harp is not “less” of a harp than a pedal harp! All types of harps are beautiful and make wonderful music that makes the world a better place!
If you’d like some information on buying a harp, specifically lever harps, check out my Harp Buying Guide.
P.S. There is a third type of harp I don’t mention here - the Paraguayan or South American harp! You can recognize this harp from the tuning pegs along the top of the instrument that look similar to a guitar. This instrument is totally different from pedal and lever harps with a totally different technique, and as such I don’t know how to play it and cannot teach you how to play the Paraguayan harp!