I am frequently asked about the difference between my two harps, especially since both have been beautifully captured on my website banner (shoutout to Natalie Burrow Photography). There are only slight differences and nuances between the two. The real difference comes from the sound each instrument produces, and therefore, the musical styles appropriate for each.
So here’s the breakdown for those of you wondering.
The “Small” One
This harp was the first harp I ever owned. Yep, it’s been with me since I was in 8th grade. This type of harp is called a lever harp. The lever harp is one of the oldest stringed instruments in the world, and was most prominently used by the Ancient Celtic peoples, thus why today it stands as the national emblem of Ireland. There is a mini “lever” attached to the top of each individual string. When the lever is up, the string is pinched, therefore making the string just slightly shorter, and thus raising the pitch half a step. So for example, on a C string, lever down plays a C natural, lever up plays a C sharp. Levers are set to the appropriate key before beginning a piece. If there is an accidental or key change during the piece, the player has to manually move the levers up or down accordingly, all while still playing one-handed! The strings produce a very bright, almost twangy, sound, which perfectly suits those traditional Celtic Irish tunes.
The “Big” One
This harp first came into my possession as a rental when I was in college, but I loved it so much I purchased it from a dear friend and fellow harpist. This type of harp is called a pedal harp. Mine specifically is considered a “petite” pedal harp, which means it has a few less strings and a narrower sound board than a “concert grand” pedal harp. This is the type of harp that you will see with the symphony and in the concert halls. It is primarily used to play classical music with the orchestra and has a very mellow tone. As the name suggests, instead of levers, the harp has seven pedals at its base. There is one pedal for each note in the musical scale. Pedals work the same way levers do. There are mechanisms inside the harp that move when the pedals are moved up or down. These mechanisms pinch the strings ever so slightly, changing the pitch by a half step, just like the levers. It is a little bit easier to make these changes on the pedal harp because the player does so with their feet.
Which one do I like better? That’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite! Both are special and unique in their own way. I could never have preference.